Rick Cohen: The benefits of LBJ's War on Poverty are still being felt

The success of the non-profit sector in the United States owes much to the former president's initiative begun in the 1960s

Rick Cohen
Rick Cohen

Presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson argue that Lyndon B Johnson's War on Poverty was 50 years of failure, costing trillions of dollars.

But they choose not to acknowledge that the official poverty rate dropped by almost half in six years after the initiative began because of programmes such as Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps. The fall in poverty among African-Americans and the elderly as a result was particularly significant. Today's 15 per cent poverty rate is actually overstated because income transfers such as food stamps and the earnedincome tax credit are not taken into account. Other supports for the poor, such as elementary school education, have helped people find paths up and out of poverty.

The success of the US non-profit sector owes a huge debt to the War on Poverty. A significant slice of the nation's social welfare non-profits have origins that go back to Johnson's Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and other anti-poverty legislation.

Fifty years ago, there were two community health centres in the US. The War on Poverty launched a network of non-profit community health centres, now numbering about 1,300. And about 1,100 largely non-profit community action agencies run energy assistance, emergency food, childcare, affordable housing, youth programmes and more.

The War on Poverty included the Special Impact Program, which supported the new industry of non-profit community development corporations, spawning a movement that now numbers in the thousands.

It also launched what evolved into more than 130 non-profit legal aid programmes, with about 800 offices providing civil legal assistance to 64 million people annually.

LBJ envisioned Volunteers in Service to America as a domestic version of the Peace Corps. Vista workers were deployed in urban and rural communities to work on anti-poverty projects. Today it's part of the nation's expanded AmeriCorps programme.

The War on Poverty was somewhat derailed by the war in Vietnam, but many of the component programmes survived: Head Start (early childhood education), home heating assistance and weather-proofing of homes, higher education loans and scholarships for low-income families, and so on. Above all, it launched a critical piece of the non-profit sector's ability to respond to urban and rural poverty.

Rick Cohen is national correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly in Boston, Massachusetts

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