The 2nd most memorable SOTU: LBJ declares war on poverty

January 27, 2014

The Fix is counting down what we think are the five most important of these annual presidential talk-a-thons.  They're ranked in order of their relative importance and lasting historical resonance. Woodrow Wilson's 1913 address came in at #5, and George W. Bush's first State of the Union after September 11, 2001 was #4. Bill Clinton's 1996 address stating “the era of big government is over” clocked in at #3. Today, we remember President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union, where he declared a war on poverty.

Fifty years ago, the poverty rate was nearly 25 percent in the United States. Over 40 million people were living on less than $3,000 a year. Because of these disheartening numbers -- and the stories of the people living under these conditions that were starting to percolate out nationally -- President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to declare war on unemployment and the conditions that caused economic suffering in America. On the anniversary of the country’s longest war, it’s clear the war isn’t won, but the programs created after LBJ’s cri de coeur definitely had an enormous impact on American life – and helped alleviate some of the social and economic problems they sought to eradicate. It wasn’t the first time a war on poverty had been mentioned in politics – but it was definitely the most memorable.

“Unfortunately,” Johnson said on January 8, 1964, “many Americans live on the outskirts of hope -- some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America … Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it. No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice.”

And so he and a heavily Democratic Congress crafted legislation that created Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, Head Start, Job Corps, VISTA and Title I – programs that still exist today and have become such an integral part of American social life that it seems nearly impossible to imagine them ever vanishing (although food stamps funds have been slowly sifted from the farm bill through the years).

President Obama released a statement on the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s State of the Union: “Without Social Security, nearly half of seniors would be living in poverty. Today, fewer than one in seven do. Before Medicare, only half of seniors had some form of health insurance. Today, virtually all do … a recent study found that the poverty rate has fallen by nearly 40% since the 1960s, and kept millions from falling into poverty during the Great Recession. “

However, over 1.7 Americans are still living on less than $2 a day, according to a study by the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, and minority children still suffer from poverty in numbers considered unacceptable by all politicians. Not only was LBJ’s speech revolutionary at the time, but it continues to fuel policy discussions half a century after its delivery – something highly unusual for a flavor of presidential communiqué often forgotten weeks after it debuts.

According to presidential historian Michael Beschloss, LBJ’s expansive economic agenda was an idea that germinated during the Kennedy presidency. Pollsters had told the president shortly before his assassination that focusing on “suburbs and prosperity” were the keys to re-election. “JFK, recalling his first blast of exposure to poor people in a 1960 West Virginia primary, said he wanted to do something also about poverty,” Beschloss said. “LBJ was told of this after becoming president and essentially said to himself, ‘That’s my issue.’”


President Johnson and his wife are shown leaving the home of Tom Fletcher, father of eight, who told Johnson he'd been out of work for nearly two years. The President made a trip to this eastern Kentucky area to see conditions in the region. (AP Photo)

Robert Caro, author of an over foot-high series (so far, he’s not quite finished yet) of biographies on our 36th president, described LBJ’s face as he gave this important speech: “He had a very tough face, and sometimes his eyes narrow and his lips get into a very thin, grim line, and they're sort of pulled down on the corners so they almost seem like a snarl. The senators and representatives sitting below him as he was making the speech were suddenly looking into a face they knew from his time in Congress, the face of a Lyndon Johnson who was determined to win.”

Or, as E.W. Kenworthy put it in 1964, “the president’s voice was pitched low, but his hopes were pitched high.”

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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Chris Cillizza · January 27, 2014