Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

Maybe the War on Poverty was the wrong metaphor

Perhaps what is needed now is not surrender or retreat in the War on Poverty. It’s a new, energizing metaphor.

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

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?

Article continues after advertisement

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


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at