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Maybe the War on Poverty was the wrong metaphor

Wikimedia Commons
President Lyndon Johnson signs the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, part of the War on Poverty.

President Johnson’s War on Poverty was not the first political war, and it won’t be the last. The War on Poverty is part of a litany of metaphors about war. We have had the War on Cancer, War on Drugs, War on Gangs, War on Women. We have had real wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and President George W. Bush’s War on Terror. If you are a regular watcher of Fox News or “The Daily Show,” our most recent war is the War on Christmas.

Judge Kevin S. Burke

President Lyndon B. Johnson set a broad agenda when he said on Jan. 8, 1964, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional War on Poverty in America. … 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. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.” Less than a year later the key elements in the War on Poverty were created; they included Head Start, Job Corps, Vista, Upward Bound, Foster Grandparents, Community Action.

Johnson’s War on Poverty was very much in the tradition of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough to those who have little.” The politics of our time often blur accurate memory, but the War on Poverty had bipartisan support. Republican President Richard Nixon extended the reach of the food-stamp program, added an automatic cost-of-living increase to Social Security, and instituted the Supplemental Security Income system to benefit disabled adults and children. To address achieving racial equality, Nixon supported affirmative action. He even proposed a guaranteed national income and almost achieved that goal; a guaranteed national income died in the Senate after passing in the House. 

Programs that have significantly helped the poor were created at the inception of the War on Poverty: Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, low-income housing, manpower training, minimum-wage improvements, aid to education, beneficial tax-law changes. Not every element of the War on Poverty worked, so it is reasonable to ask now, 50 years later, can we claim that the War on Poverty was a success or a failure? Or perhaps the better question to ask is, since the metaphor was a war, is it time to surrender or retreat?

From Reagan to Rubio

From its inception, the War on Poverty had vocal critics. Poverty doves like President Ronald Reagan would later claim, in 1988, “We fought a War on Poverty, and poverty won.” This week, Sen. Marco Rubio has decided to rename President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” as the “big government War on Poverty.” Eric Black said of the senator’s initiative: “The simple version of the argument is that if the various welfare benefits and programs begun since 1963 could solve the poverty problem, poverty should have disappeared by now, and yet, quoting Rubio, “tens of millions of Americans live beneath the poverty line. … After 50 years, isn’t it time to declare big government’s War on Poverty a failure?”

In retrospect, Johnson was very measured in his expectations of how difficult the War on Poverty would be: ”The War on Poverty is not fought on any single, simple battlefield and it will not be won in a generation. There are too many enemies:  lack of jobs, bad housing, poor schools, lack of skills, discrimination; each intensifies the other.”  

Many indicators of success

There are many indicators that the War on Poverty was a success. Infant mortality has dropped, and while high-school graduation is no longer enough to succeed in this economy, college completion rates have soared. One study looked back at the babies who benefited from the introduction and expansion of food stamps in the 1960s and 1970s, and found that they grew up to be healthier and more likely to finish high school than their peers born in counties where the program had not yet been instituted.

Johnson identified minimum-wage improvements as an essential component of a War on Poverty. On that score the War on Poverty is not particularly successful. If you are a single parent and you earn the minimum wage, you are classified as below the poverty level.  Johnson believed that raising the minimum wage would reduce poverty. That’s the conclusion of a new paper titled “Minimum Wages and the Distribution of Family Incomes.” Yet the federal government in recent years has not raised the minimum wage, while states and even some cities have. On Jan. 1, state minimum wages in 21 states is higher than the federal requirement of $7.25 an hour, up from 18 states two years ago. 

Medicaid was a core piece of the War on Poverty and continues to make a major difference in people’s lives, improving health and reducing infant and childhood mortality. The program now provides health coverage to nearly 65 million low-income Americans, including children, parents, seniors and people with disabilities. A  New York Times analysis found that “the federal government has succeeded in preventing the poverty rate from climbing far higher” through food stamps, expansion of unemployment insurance and other government initiatives.

Two disproportionate victims

There are two disproportionate victims of poverty: children and the elderly. The elderly have greatly benefited from Johnson’s War on Poverty through expanded Social Security and Medicare. The poverty rate among elderly Americans dropped from 35 percent in 1959 to 9 percent in 2012.  

Children have not fared comparatively as well as the elderly. Today 20 percent of children live in “official” poverty. There is an even higher rate for black and Hispanic children, and for those in families headed by a single parent. Among the world’s 35 richest countries, the United States holds the shameful distinction of ranking second highest in child poverty. Children growing up in poverty complete less schooling, work and earn less as adults, are more likely to receive public assistance, and have poorer health. 

The lack of access to medical care is an essential and potentially devastating byproduct of poverty. As of 1963, 20 percent of Americans living below the poverty line had never been examined by a physician; by 1970 this was true of only 8 percent. The debate about the efficacy of the Affordable Health Care Act will continue to rage, but there is no doubt we are a country where most people are at least occasionally examined by physicians.

The War on Poverty didn’t achieve its primary goal of totally preventing poverty. The poverty rate in 1964 was 19 percent. It has fluctuated between 11 percent and 15 percent ever since, and stands at 15 percent today. It is this statistic that is at the core of the argument that the War on Poverty was a failure and that surrender or retreat is in order.

A look at poverty statistics

Mark Twain made popular the phrase, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” And so, too, with the reliability of War on Poverty statistics.

“I think there is broad consensus that the official poverty measure is flawed, particularly when you look back over a long period of time,” claims Sharon Parrott, vice president for budget policy and economic opportunity at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which is a liberal think tank.

“I don’t have an impression that it’s too high or too low; I just have an impression that it’s wrong,” says Michael Tanner, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank. “There’s almost a universal acknowledgment that the number we use now doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

There are a lot of components to creating an accurate poverty rate, but one clear essential is food. Our country has issues about our diet, but malnutrition has been radically reduced as a result of the War on Poverty.  The nutritional level of the poor improved substantially. Children who received food stamps were less likely than children from similarly low-income families who did not receive food stamps to develop diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure — or to rely on welfare programs — as adults. But food contributes to the inaccuracy of a statistically accurate poverty rate; the official poverty thresholds are based off of what Americans spent on food in 1963.

According to the Census Bureau, a household making less than three times what the “minimum food diet” in 1963 cost is below the poverty threshold. But the way Americans spend money on food has changed markedly since 1963. People spent around one-quarter of their budgets on food in the 1960s. By 2003, it was closer to 13 percent, according to the Labor Department. The Gates Foundation calculated in 2012 that Americans now spend only 6 percent of their money on food, suggesting that food is a driving force in a suspect poverty rate.

There are other problems with the accuracy of the official poverty rate. The official poverty rate doesn’t take into account some safety-net programs designed to help the poorest Americans. Cash transfers like Social Security are included when determining poverty, but noncash programs like Medicaid and food stamps are not included.

So the poverty-rate statistics are suspect. What if we had just not gone to War on Poverty? There is no question that the Treasury would be filled with unspent dollars, but what would our country look like? A study by Columbia University analyzed this question.  In 1967, about 26 percent were poor compared to 16 percent in 2012.

If this study is accurate, absent the War on Poverty the 2012 poverty rate would be 29 percent. Johnson’s War on Poverty lifted 13 percent of the population — 40 million people — out of poverty. But the battlefield is still crowded with the casualties of the War on Poverty.

Downside to the perfect metaphor

Metaphor is a device of  poetic imagination. Rhetorical flourish, if you are a president summoning a nation to a cause, is pretty essential. It has been said that there is a simple difference between a vision and a hallucination. The difference is the number of people who see it. President Johnson knew he needed people to see his vision, so a resort to war was his perfect metaphor. But the downside is, people tire of war and then there is talk of surrender or retreat.  

Although metaphor is viewed as a tool of language alone, metaphors are not just tools of language, but creative ways to think of action. It is not practical to dispense with a tired metaphor of a War on Poverty. The metaphor of war is ingrained in our thoughts about poverty. Perhaps then, what is needed now is not surrender or retreat in the War on Poverty. The culture of the U.S. military is the creed that you don’t leave anyone behind — whether injured, captured, or dead. Each branch of the service has its own unique way of reflecting this culture. The U.S. Army Ranger Creed, the oath Army Rangers take, includes these words: “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy …” In the spirit of an Army Ranger, we will never leave a comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy of poverty.

The new metaphor we need is a surge in the War on Poverty.

Kevin Burke is a trial judge on the Hennepin County District Court and past president of the American Judges Association


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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 01/10/2014 - 10:45 am.

    Another poverty perspective

    I appreciate Judge Burke’s perspective on the poverty war. I have been involved in volunteer efforts to help a wide variety of people for as long as the judge has been on the bench. I see things a bit differently.

    The poverty issue really comes down to how big a role government should play in helping people change. My experience tells me . . . not much.

    A major drawback of President Johnson’s Great Society effort in the 1960s was to drive the father out of the home as a result of restrictions placed on families receiving government assistance. The absence of fathers greatly affected family life, especially in the African American community. The impact is still felt today.

    Over the past 30 years, I have been in eight volunteer programs. They have ranged from assisting teenagers to working with immigrants and prisoners. In each situation, there have been plenty of staff, volunteers and resources available to anyone seeking aid. In fact, the continuing concern of program leaders is whether there will be enough people in the program to justify funding for another year.

    After three decades in the trenches, my observation is the poverty issue comes down to the people themselves. There are plenty of programs already to assist anyone seeking to change their life. If people really want to change, they can. The United States is, by far, the most generous country in the world. Those aforementioned immigrants often told me there is no comparable assistance in their own countries.

    The ultimate poverty solution is to have individuals rather than government agencies help people change. I always point out to the folks I work with that I am the one person in their scheme of things not paid to be there. (One homeless fellow I work with has a psychiatrist, an attorney, a housing adviser and a life coach — me. Add a personal trainer and a nutritionist and he would have an entourage equal to that of any movie star or professional athlete.) The idea is to make them feel a sense of obligation. I also tell them I believe they can change their life and, just as important, I tell them I expect them to change. My consistent request is, “Don’t let me down.”

    Sadly, many of them do. But even after 30 years, I am still trying. When there are more volunteers and almost no paid government workers, I am sure the poverty effort will become much more successful.

    I think if many of those now retiring Baby Boomers increase volunteer efforts, as I expect they will, Minnesota and the United States will be a lot better off. And the good judge and I will be much happier.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/10/2014 - 03:32 pm.

    Metaphors and definitions

    I agree with Judge Burke that the “War on Poverty” may have been an apt metaphor at the time but it may have outlived its usefulness. But the “War on Poverty” was not the only one. President Johnson also initiated his “Great Society” programs later in 1964 which also included programs that sought to lift people out of poverty.

    One of these was the Legal Services Corporation which in the 1970’s became very effective in challenging laws, rules and policies which discriminated against the poor. So effective was this program in helping the poor that California Governor Ronald Reagan targeted it for elimination when he became President. He succeeded in having its budget slashed to the point where it could not longer serve as an instrument of leveling the legal playing field for the poor. Today, the poor and even what was formerly the middle class are all but completely deprived of access to civil justice and the civil courts.

    I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the decline of programs like the Legal Services Corporation occurred at the same time of the growth of payday loansharking and predatory lending. And the growth of homelessness. Faux News has made “poor bashing” part of its offering of news cum entertainment.

    I take some issue with the former writer who thinks that climbing out of poverty is a matter of attitude adjustment and will on the part of people who cannot make their limited ends meet. Mental change and lifestyle change is part of the equation to be sure and government programs are no panacea. But it’s naive to think that people who must work two or three jobs and who cannot earn enough from those jobs to pay for decent shelter, reliable transportation or food are going to be succored only by positive thoughts and volunteer efforts.

  3. Submitted by William Pappas on 01/12/2014 - 07:51 am.

    war on poverty: now a war on low compensation

    The new “war on poverty” is simple. It is centered on providing insurance to the working poor and boosting their compensation as well as retooling the economy to find jobs with livable compensation. The new endemic problem with poverty today is that jobs providing a salary or wage that enables a family to save for college, obtain medical insurance, housing and adequate food while also planning for retirement are few and far between. It is a problem that is now beginning to impact the middle class and has engendered a growing class of working poor sliding into poverty through a layoff or an acute medical problem. In otherwords our economy is structurally unsound and is getting sicker through the passage of horrendous trade agreements that exacerbate the export of good paying manufacturing jobs and company profits to overseas banks, thereby avoiding fair taxation. The inequality of income has institutionally increased the protractedness of the working poor and is the largest obstacle to reducing poverty overall. Until the problem of living wages is addressed and the entire population is able to recieve health insurance, the war on poverty will be stuck. In fact, because of the growing disparity of compensation with respect to costs of living, the war on poverty is being lost, not because the programs to keep people from suffering are not working but because our economic policies are rerouting income gains to the rich from the poor.

  4. Submitted by William Pappas on 01/12/2014 - 07:53 am.

    wrong poverty metaphor

    It should be the War on Unfair and Inadequate Compensation.

  5. Submitted by Jon Lord on 01/13/2014 - 08:15 am.

    So the war goes on

    If Republicans have their way, with much reduced help to those currently in or near poverty. There “are” far fewer jobs available to people than ever before taking into account the growth in population over the decades. This is going to continue ‘to happen’. It’s been said before but worth repeating that Minnesota has one of the lowest minimum wage in the country at $6.15 an hour. $6.15 an hour!! It bears repeating. Food stamps are around the lowest in the nation given what the federal guidelines are per income level. The lowest in the nation!! This also bears repeating. Those two things occurred under Pawlenty, and are still with us. $6.15 an hour!! Here in Minnesota!! Jobs are increasingly becoming “temporary”, here and in the nation proper, in nature meaning most people will be working part time in the future, if not now. It’s unfortunate but “there are falling comrades who will be left behind” to the enemy poverty if we start thinking the battle ‘against’ both the middle class and the poor that started in the 70’s\80’s is over and worth forgetting. Underpaid, undercompensated and uneducated seems to be the chant from the right going forward. Poverty is still with us. Don’t turn away now!

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