WASHINGTON — Fifty years later, LBJ's audacious promise in his first State of the Union Address may be resounding again.
On Jan. 8, 1964, just seven weeks after John F. Kennedy's assassination propelled him into the Oval Office, Lyndon B. Johnson described to a Joint Session of Congress the plight of Americans who "live on the outskirts of hope" because of poverty or race. "This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America," he declared in his Texas twang, voice rising. Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and more would follow in a historic rush of legislation.
Now, issues of economic fairness and opportunity once again are fueling a more vocal populism, setting a more liberal Democratic agenda and prompting alternative proposals from some leading Republicans. In his own State of the Union Address this month, President Obama is expected to call for raising the minimum wage, extending long-term unemployment benefits and addressing the dramatically widening gap between the rich and everybody else.
Speaking at a community center in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the capital last month, he called it "the defining challenge of our time." On Capitol Hill Wednesday, California Rep. Barbara Lee will launch a series of 50 speeches in 50 days on the House floor by Democratic members to honor LBJ's campaign and rekindle a national effort against poverty.
"I think income inequality has really hit a nerve, a political nerve," Joseph Califano, LBJ's top White House domestic policy adviser, says approvingly. He notes the populist priorities outlined last week in the inaugural address by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, the most liberal mayor in at least two decades in the nation's largest city. "I think we're going to see a revival of programs really designed to give the poor a lift."
To be sure, there's little prospect Obama will be able to push through major legislation in short order the way Johnson did in the 1960s, utilizing big Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, his legendary legislative skill and the nation's resolve in the wake of JFK's death. From the 1964 State of the Union Address until he left office five years later, Johnson would sign into law landmark measures that extended civil rights protections and established safety net programs. (His presidency also would become mired in the expanding Vietnam War.)
Now, proponents in the Senate have been struggling to restore long-term jobless benefits that lapsed just after Christmas. The reception in the GOP-controlled House is likely to be even less hospitable. Speaker John Boehner says Democrats first must find ways to offset the $6.5 billion cost of a three-month extension.
Whether the legislation passes or not, the debate is putting a spotlight on an emerging set of issues and forcing candidates in midterm elections to take positions on them.
The energy on the Democratic left is offering a stronger offset to the Tea Party movement on the right. It has shifted the discussion on programs such as Social Security; long a target for cuts, some Democrats now argue retirement benefits should be raised. And it is altering the landscape for the 2016 presidential election, and not just for Democrats. Republican presidential prospects Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida each have proposed approaches to combat poverty, though they generally reject LBJ's reliance on government.
"The tectonic plates of our politics have shifted in the last few years," says Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "Our politics are changing, and the issues which have dominated our politics in the past — both Obamacare and the deficit — are not unimportant, but these types of issues may now supersede them."
LBJ set the goal high. "It will not be a short or easy struggle; no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won," he declared in his speech, 50 years ago Wednesday. "The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it."
New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, though just a young girl at the time, remembers the excitement and determination of that era from her father, Robert Coldwell Wood, a political scientist and Kennedy adviser who led the task force that recommended Johnson establish a new Department of Housing and Urban Development. Wood served as HUD's first undersecretary and briefly headed the department in the closing weeks of the Johnson administration.
"What he always stressed with me was that every American should have a chance to succeed, and it's important we not let people get marginalized by circumstances," Hassan said in an interview. Those are lessons she says she applies today in efforts to expand Medicaid and improve mental health services in New Hampshire.
The fact that poverty wasn't vanquished then and persists today has provided ammunition for those who say the goal was impossible or the wrong tools were chosen to reach it. "In the '60s, we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won," then-president Ronald Reagan quipped. Rubio, who has scheduled a speech in the LBJ Room of the Capitol on Wednesday's anniversary to discuss lessons from Johnson's crusade, asks, "Isn't it time to declare big government's war on poverty a failure?"
The official poverty rate in the United States, defined as lacking resources for life's basic needs, was 19% in 1964. It had fallen to 12.1% by 1969, the year Johnson left office. Last year, it stood at 15%, only a modest decline from the launch of his anti-poverty campaign. Today, about 50 million Americans, including 13 million children, live below the poverty line — in 2012 set at $23,492 for a family of four.
However, experts who study poverty call the official statistics misleading because they don't take into account non-cash assistance such as rent subsidies, tax credits and food stamps — the tools now favored over a welfare check to ameliorate poverty's effects. Using what's called the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) researchers at Columbia University calculate that the poverty rate adjusted for inflation has fallen from 26% in 1967 to 16% today, a more significant decline.
"Poverty remains high," says Sharon Parrott, vice president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal Washington think tank. "It's higher in the United States than in most wealthy nations. We still have very large racial disparities. So you can't look at this record and say we are where we want to be or where we hoped to be when the effort was taken up, but neither is it accurate to say we haven't made significant progress."
The government's safety net programs cut the poverty rate last year by nearly half, the Census Bureau reports. Without them, the poverty rate would have been 29% in 2012. Government benefits lifted 41 million people, including 9 million children, out of poverty.
Many of those programs were launched by LBJ. During his administration, a pilot program for food stamps became permanent. The federal government established the Head Start program for preschoolers, began to help finance elementary and secondary school education, and started college aid and loan programs. Social Security benefits were raised and Medicare and Medicaid were created.
"Nobody talked about poverty since then the way he did," says Califano, who would later serve as secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Carter administration. "Poverty and civil rights were the driving forces of his presidency." When Johnson read through speechwriter Ted Sorensen's draft of that first State of the Union address, he added several words to the key sentence on poverty — writing in "today" and "here and now" — for emphasis.
LBJ devoted time, focus, horse-trading, cajoling and occasionally political threats to get legislation passed, at times over the fierce opposition of conservative Southern Democrats who controlled key committees. Now, Califano says he hopes Obama will follow that example to "get his fingernails dirty" and exert stronger leadership than he has to date. He likened Obama's reluctance to engage with Congress with another former boss, Jimmy Carter.
"We are a presidential nation," Califano says. "The president is as much at fault as the Congress in Congress not doing anything. Congress will only work with a very strong president, whether it's Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson — three great eras of progressive programs."
50 days, 50 speeches
On Wednesday, LBJ's daughter Lynda Johnson Robb is slated to be on Capitol Hill to mark the 50th anniversary with leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus and other top Democrats. Then, in the first of 50 commemorative speeches on the House floor, Rep. Lee says she will urge Americans "to create a Great Society once again."
She may tell a story from her own life. As the young single mother of two children, she relied on food stamps and California's Medicaid program, called MediCal, to enable her to go to college. "If it hadn't been for that bridge over troubled waters," she says, "I don't know where I'd be."
Meanwhile, some Republicans also are talking about poverty, although they're offering different prescriptions to combat it. Rubio said reducing the budget deficit and the debt would help generate middle-class jobs; he also called for repealing the Affordable Care Act and strengthening retirement programs. In a speech last month to the Detroit Economic Club, Paul said the best way to help struggling cities and the poor people who live in them was to cut taxes.
The causes and nature of poverty have shifted in the past half-century. A report issued Monday by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities details some trends that have helped reduce poverty since 1964. More adults have completed high school and more women work outside the home — from about four in 10 in 1964 to nearly two-thirds now. Families have fewer children.
However, other developments have kept poverty high. The percentage of men who have jobs has fallen from 87% then to 74% now. The number of households led by a single parent has more than tripled, to 35%.
And a significant change: Income inequality has soared. The share of income that goes to the top 1% has more than doubled, from 10% in 1964 to 22% in 2012, according to data analyzed by economist Emmanuel Saez. Income inequality, now the highest in a century, stoked the Occupy Wall Street protests and the current debate.
In his inaugural address as mayor of New York, de Blasio called the growing income gap a "quiet crisis" as "pernicious" as crime and terrorism. "We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love," he declared. Outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman, sat stone-faced nearby.
"The American people are angry; they are hurting; they are sick and tired of Wall Street and the very rich becoming richer while the middle class disappears," says Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a political independent who caucuses with the Democrats. He says income and wealth inequality have "reached obscene proportions."
Says Califano, "My own hunch, I think we're seeing the seeds of another populist time coming. It's not only the 99% versus the 1%. It's the fear that the middle class has of slipping into poverty. There are a lot of people on the edge."