Civil rights leaders from the 1960s to 2014 have their own theories and solutions regarding the War on Poverty. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

In the middle of an Oklahoma wildlife refuge — at a campus so remote that buffalo wander in — about 100 young people are taking classes in the hope that the U.S. government can turn their lives around.

Given the statistics, most of them will be disappointed.

This is the Treasure Lake Job Corps center, an outpost of a job-training program created as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. The program began with a noble, untested idea: Government could save troubled youths one at a time, taking them in and teaching them a trade.

Today, students here learn subjects such as cooking, nursing and plumbing from employees of the U.S. Forest Service. A year of education and job placement costs taxpayers about $45,000, more than tuition at Georgia Tech.

But at last count, only about 49 percent of Treasure Lake’s students completed their job training.

Lyndon B. Johnson's visionary set of legislation turns 50

And only 55 percent of those graduates found jobs in fields they were trained for.

“Is it worth it to the taxpayer? If functioning well, yes,” said Roger Hepburn, Treasure Lake’s new acting director.

But is Treasure Lake worth the cost given how it actually functions?

“I don’t know how to answer that,” Hepburn said. “So I’m just not going to.”

The struggles of this place — and of the Job Corps program as a whole — have come to illustrate two powerful legacies of the Great Society. The first is that the government has vastly expanded its ambition to improve individual lives.

Fifty years after Johnson laid out his ambitious agenda — which led to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and many other programs — Washington now does far more in an effort to lift ordinary Americans above their troubles.

The second is that government often fails to fulfill those broad ambitions.

And we’ve gotten used to it.

Job Corps will cost about $1.7 billion this year, making it the most expensive single job-training program at the Labor Department. It has about 37,000 training slots for young people every year, just a fraction of the country’s unemployed and underemployed.

But, at last count, less than half of Job Corps students were able to finish their job training and then find a job in the field they were trained for. And in 2008, a comprehensive study found that Job Corps’ benefits to society did not outweigh its costs.

But Job Corps is still very popular in Washington, among lawmakers of both parties.

It is still considered a success — at least as “success” is defined now, after a hard and disappointing 50-year war on poverty.

“The question is, do they work at all? Are the students better off not going to the center [at all] than going there?” said Anand Vimalassery, who represents an association of contractors that run federal Job Corps centers. “My guess is that they’re still probably a little better off going there.”

‘A fresh start’

The Job Corps program has 125 centers across the country. The students come as volunteers, some recruited by an online ad campaign: “Every day is a fresh start at Job Corps.” To enroll, they must be from low-income families and at least 16 years old. More than half lack a high school diploma.

Once accepted, nearly all students live at a center rent-free. Most stay there between nine and 11 months. In addition to academic and vocational classes, students also learn how to write a résumé and how to interview with an employer.

It is an expensive way to get somebody a job.

Federal officials say Job Corps costs more than other job-training programs because it does more. Instead of just teaching someone to weld, or how to search, Job Corps is reorienting entire lives — lives that otherwise might drift away from the world of work.

“We think it’s clearly money well spent,” said Portia Wu, who oversees job-training programs at the Labor Department. “It’s a lot cheaper than some of the alternatives, like our juvenile- or criminal-justice systems.”

That is an argument nearly unchanged since 1964, when President Johnson’s advisers proposed the Job Corps program. Other Great Society programs offered a safety net to catch poor families — expanded food-stamp benefits, health care through Medicaid. Job Corps was intended to be something more aggressive, a way to help young people so they would never need that safety net.

“They are new educational institutions, comparable in innovation to the land-grant colleges,” Johnson told Congress in March 1964. “Those who enter them will emerge better qualified to play a productive role in American society.”

Congress signed on. The result was a series of centers that were a little like trade school and a little like charm school. Some of them were set in the remote countryside, and they operated a little like a Depression-era civilian work camp.

It was a program for the poor, created by bureaucrats and academics who knew little about them.

In fact, when the first Job Corps center opened in rural Maryland in 1965, its leaders weren’t even sure what the first students would want when they arrived. Would they want cigarettes, the bureaucrats wondered, according to a Washington Post history of the program written in 1980, or would they want milk and cookies?

Were these men, who needed a trade? Or children, who needed a parent?

In private, even Johnson seemed doubtful that this odd new experiment would succeed at getting its students jobs.

But, he told a friend, at least it might get them ready for another government institution — the U.S. Army.

“Scrub ’em up, get some tapeworms out of their bellies and get ’em to where they get up at 6 o’clock in the morning, work all day. And then we can get ’em to where they can serve,” Johnson told Dick West, an editor at the Dallas Morning News, explaining Job Corps in a taped conversation from August 1964. At the time, the Vietnam War was on and the Army was turning away many young draftees for a lack of physical or mental fitness.

“We think we can clean ’em up this way and shoot ’em on in there,” Johnson told his friend. “And maybe — maybe even teach ’em to be a truck driver or, uh, something.”

A heavyweight example

In the 50 years since, Job Corps has made a difference in many lives. George Foreman learned to box at a Job Corps center and said later that it turned him from a street brawler into a heavyweight champ. Alumni include doctors, small-business owners and the chief judge of Idaho’s state court of appeals.

“If I could donate money to Job Corps, I would. It’s one of those programs that, I wish it would always be there,” said Antonio Alford, 33. Alford learned commercial painting at a Job Corps program in Massachusetts in 1999 and rose in that field to become the foreman in charge of repainting part of the U.S. Capitol’s roof in 2012.

“That’s all it takes sometimes, somebody to give you that first step,” Alford said.

But for many students, Job Corps was not enough.

Over the decades, auditors found that many students quit before they graduated — homesick, bored, or tired of conflicts with other students. Today, about 59 percent complete all of their training. The rest leave early, with no penalty or requirement to pay money back.

Many others students graduate to find that Job Corps did not prepare them for a job. The problem might be that a student is not advanced enough to be hired, or lacks the connections that help others in the field.

“I had a friend, he took culinary, and he ended up being a landscaper. . . . Had another friend, he was a plasterer, but now he cuts meat for a living,” said Adrian Puga, 18, of Amarillo, Tex. Puga graduated from the Treasure Lake Job Corps center in May 2013, trained in carpentry.

He became a success story — at least briefly. Puga got a job building fences, for six months, then left it. Now he works for a lawn-care business. “I only work on Fridays and Thursday, because we don’t have that much work going on,” he said.

In the past, auditors found that Job Corps officials had used accounting gimmicks to exaggerate their success at placing students in good jobs.

In 2011, for instance, auditors discovered a student who had been trained in cooking got a job as a funeral attendant. The loose rules used by Labor Department officials allowed them to count that as a “match” to the student's culinary training.

They also counted another culinary student who got a job in pest control. Labor Department officials say they no longer do things that way.

Critics of Job Corps, mainly conservatives, say the program’s success stories have kept politicians from asking hard questions about it.

“It’s really governance by anecdote,” said Mason Bishop, a former Labor Department official who oversaw Job Corps and other job-training programs under President George W. Bush. “We all want to believe that the worth of one soul is enough to justify millions and billions of dollars in spending. But the real question is, how many souls do we need to save to make the investment worth it?”

The broadest attempt to answer that question — “Does Job Corps Work?” — was made by researchers at a private firm in Princeton, N.J. Starting in 1995, they spent nine years studying 15,000 students who had applied for Job Corps, comparing the ones who attended with the ones who did not.

The results were mixed. The Job Corps participants showed greater educational gains and fewer arrests, and — four years after they attended Job Corps — they made more money, by 12 percent. That was the good news. This was the first time that any big federal employment and training program targeting at-risk youths had succeeded at increasing their earnings. The benefits were especially pronounced for students who entered the program when they were older than 20.

The bad news was that, after four years, the benefits disappeared. On average, the Job Corps students earned the same as the others.

And that wasn’t the only bad news. When the researchers tried to add up all the social benefits of Job Corps — including reduced crime and reduced use of welfare benefits — they found it still did not equal the cost of sending students to the program.

“What you find is that the program — from society’s perspective — does not pay for itself,” said Peter Schochet, a senior fellow at the policy research firm Mathematica who helped lead that study. “But it is a good deal for the enrollees themselves.”

In Washington today, that much good is good enough.

In past decades, Richard M. Nixon sought to shrink Job Corps. Ronald Reagan tried to eliminate it. Today, Washington is focusing on job-training programs again, with Vice President Biden leading a review of the government’s overcomplicated and undereffective set of 45-plus programs.

But, even amid all that, Job Corps seems to be safe. The program has support from House conservatives, although they have pressed to close a few low-performing centers.

“I think sometimes the value is, in one sense, immeasurable, because you have to see it almost kind of individual by individual,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who chairs a Senate subcommittee that oversees employment programs. “You’re getting results that both parties can take a look at and make a determination that the program should be continued.”

Treasure Lake

Another way to measure the value of Job Corps’ work is to look at the place where it works the least. That would be Treasure Lake — the remote outpost in Oklahoma that ranks last in Job Corps’ own measurements of students’ academic progress and job-hunting success.

It began its life as a “civilian conservation center,” one of the subset of centers where students were supposed to be purified and edified through hard country labor. But today the center does most of its work indoors, teaching trades in construction, nursing and cooking.

Many former students say it was often chaotic and poorly managed.

“Reminded me of bein bk in jail lol,” one student wrote in a Facebook message.

Another said it reminded her of a homeless shelter, full of people hustling and fighting.

“As soon as I set foot in Job Corps, I was back on the streets,” she said. “The only difference was that my bed was a little nicer.”

Austin Brown, who came here when he was 16, recalled seeing other students at Treasure Lake make wine prison-style, using a trash bag full of fermenting cafeteria fruit and apple juice.

When it was ready, he said, “they strained all the apple peels and everything — all the mold and everything,” said Brown, now 18. “They would put it in the refrigerator and let it get cold” before drinking it, he said. Brown said he never drank it himself.

Turned off by the chaos, many students simply left before graduation. They called relatives or friends to pick them up and disappeared.

Today, the Forest Service is trying to turn the center around. Hepburn, the new director, arrived about three weeks ago — so recently that his walls are largely bare. But he already has tried to show there is a new order: When students returned from a recent field trip, he looked through photos and saw one flashing a gang sign.

“There he was, just big as day,” Hepburn recalled. “He’s gone.” The student was dismissed from the program.

It is too early to know if Hepburn’s approach is working, but he says he is regularly thanked by students and administrators for making the place feel safer and more productive.

But even when the place was at its worst, it still did some good. Former students praised their training in job skills, social skills and résumé writing, even while they criticized the living conditions. Brown — who watched his roommates make prison-style hooch — did get his training in culinary skills, and afterward he did get a job in his field. He is now a cook at Burger King.

“I hated it while I was there,” Brown said. “But I learned a lot.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.