Fifty years ago this month, in his State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” part of what he coined “The Great Society.”
It would provide economic and educational opportunities for everyone, especially minority populations.
Parts of LBJ’s Great Society agenda generated backlash, and still do today, while its programs have expanded.
Lyndon Johnson crisscrossed the country in 1964 seeking support for the changes he envisioned.
Stops included one at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time,” the President said.
Today, a half-century later, millions of Americans use the resulting programs daily –for instance, Medicaid and food stamps.
Other changes are less well-known including, an agency that took shape in Milwaukee.
I met Jesus Salas to discuss some of what happened here on account of Johnson administration programs.
Salas, a third generation migrant worker says United Migrant Opportunity Services, UMOS, was first funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.
He remembers harvesting crops with his family for ten years in Wisconsin and Illinois. He noticed others, with no options for their young children, besides taking them into the fields. After graduating from high school, Salas left the farms to advocate for those families.
“I began working in the first demonstration program for child care for migrant workers. The focus of the agency was the care of migrant children, or that is, the enforcement of Wisconsin’s child labor law.” Salas recalled.
He says the new federal Employment Opportunity Act provided some muscle for migrant families regarding issues such as working conditions.
“To us at that time, the Great Society included not only an attempt to eradicate poverty, but to eradicate social injustice,” Salas said..
One strategy the war on poverty used to lift people, was requiring them to devise the programs they needed, and Salas says that requirement is still evident.
“It is the enduring factor that allows United Migrant Opportunity Services to survive to this day,” Salas said.
Today, UMOS offers job training, education and support services for thousands of Latinos from its headquarters on South Chase Avenue.
The policy of requiring people in need to create and run support programs greatly expanded what Annelise Orleck calls “the political class.” She’s a history professor at Dartmouth.
“It was poor people themselves who opened up clinics and ran community newspapers and registered people to vote and often started to demand representation themselves on welfare boards and housing boards, and run for office,” Orleck said.
Yet, she says plenty of Americans were jittery about giving too much power to poor people.
Milwaukee Congresswoman Gwen Moore describes what she felt in the 60s as paranoia. She served with VISTA – the domestic version of the Peace Corps.
“There was a real reaction and effort to fight deployment of VISTA volunteers around the country because they were seen as “political agitants,” as it were,” Moore recalled.
Moore says she spent part of her time helping establish a federal credit union in the central city, to address the lack of banking services there. She praises ‘Great Society’ programs for helping her acquire skills she’s used throughout her career. Today, Moore insists the “war on poverty” is essential, not only to assist the poor but also a middle class teetering on poverty.
Strong opposition exists, according to Dartmouth Historian Annelise Orleck.
“I think now there is a strong effort to turn back the expansion of democracy that you began to see in the 1960s,” Orleck said.
The cost of programs growing out of the ‘war on poverty’ has ballooned and deepened the country’s multi-trillion dollar deficit.