The Sad Outcome Of America’s War On Poverty, 52 Years Later

Published January 8, 2016
Updated February 27, 2024

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty. Sadly, it's a war we're still fighting, and a war we've always been losing.

Americans love to declare war on abstract ideas. The War on Christmas, the War on Drugs and, declared on Jan. 8, 1964, the War on Poverty. Much like these other “wars,” President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty was, by and large, a failure.

In 1964, poverty wasn’t a new problem, but it was a newly realized and newly contextualized problem after the first numbers on poverty came out in 1959.

During Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union Address, he laid out his offensive against poverty to not only “relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” Expansion in government-funded education and healthcare were foundations of the plan–foundations that can still be seen today in programs such as Head Start, the TRIO college opportunity program, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Unfortunately for the country and for Johnson’s plan, the War on Poverty was prohibitively expensive. At least, it was prohibitively expensive while the nation made the war in Vietnam the top priority in the 1960s and 1970s. The war on poverty didn’t start rolling again after the conclusion of the war in Vietnam, either, with successive presidents cutting down funding for Johnson’s program in an effort to dismantle what they called the welfare state.

Today, 80 percent of the population divvies up a little less than half of the total income. We are a nation of haves and have-nots. Most notable are the 45 million have-nots who fall under the poverty line–$23,850 annual income for a family of four, $15,730 for a couple, and $11,670 for an individual: that’s how around 15 percent of the total population live. And 33 percent of the population–105 million people–live in close proximity to the poverty line with incomes less than double the poverty threshold.

The poverty level in 1964 when LBJ proclaimed war: 19 percent.

In this war, all of America is losing.

Nickolaus Hines
Nickolaus Hines graduated with a Bachelor's in journalism from Auburn University, and his writing has appeared in Men's Journal, Inverse, and VinePair.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Hines, Nickolaus. "The Sad Outcome Of America’s War On Poverty, 52 Years Later.", January 8, 2016, Accessed May 27, 2024.