Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Obama, LBJ, and the War on Poverty

• August 15, 2012 • 1:59 PM

Paul Tough’s latest New York Times Magazine feature performs an admirable service illustrating contradictions between the Obama administration’s anti-poverty efforts and Obama’s own complex views on the topic, shaped by his early career as a community organizer in Chicago’s hard-luck Roseland neighborhood. But I have to quibble with one mildly disingenuous sleight of hand the piece performs. In discussing the history of the War on Poverty, Tough narrates:

In 1966, at the height of the War on Poverty, the poverty rate was just under 15 percent of the population; in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, it was 15.1 percent. And the child-poverty rate is 22 percent — substantially higher today than it was then. And yet as a political issue, especially during this presidential campaign season, poverty has receded almost to silence.

It’s strange that Tough chooses 1966 as his point of comparison. As Wonkblog recently pointed out, in the five years before 1964—the year Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty—the poverty rate was near or above 20 percent. The rate dropped dramatically in the next 10 years, and hasn’t gone over 15 percent since. Whether or not you accept government transfer payments on moral grounds, there is little denying the statistical evidence that programs resulting from the War on Poverty put a strong ceiling on poverty rates in America.

Tough’s Roseland is a poignant symbol for how little Obama, or any politician, can realistically achieve in office. But his reading of history downplays the real impact that Federal policies have had overall. Comparing 1966 to 2010, as Tough does, is a bit like saying “because my health hasn’t continued to improve each day after fully recovering from a successful surgery, the surgery must not have worked.”

Michael Fitzgerald
Michael Fitzgerald is an associate editor at Pacific Standard. He has previously worked at The New Republic and Oxford American Magazine.

More From Michael Fitzgerald

If you would like to comment on this post, or anything else on Pacific Standard, visit our Facebook or Google+ page, or send us a message on Twitter. You can also follow our regular updates and other stories on both LinkedIn and Tumblr.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Follow us


Subscribe Now

Quick Studies

How Junk Food Companies Manipulate Your Tongue

We mistakenly think that harder foods contain fewer calories, and those mistakes can affect our belt sizes.

What Steve Jobs’ Death Teaches Us About Public Health

Studies have shown that when public figures die from disease, the public takes notice. New research suggests this could be the key to reaching those who are most at risk.

Speed-Reading Apps Will Not Revolutionize Anything, Except Your Understanding

The one-word-at-a-time presentation eliminates the eye movements that help you comprehend what you're reading.

To Make Friends, Autistic Kids Need Advice—and Space

Kids with autism need help when it comes to making friends—but they also need their independence.

Gaming the Wedding Gift Registry System

Registering for your wedding? Keep your must-have items away from the average price of your registry—they’re unlikely to be purchased.

The Big One

One state—Pennsylvania—logs 52 percent of all sales, shipments, and receipts for the chocolate manufacturing industry. March/April 2014