October 7, 2017

1967. Congress Examines the War on Poverty

Senate Holds Hearings on the War on Poverty
"Senators George Murphy, Jacob Javits, Joseph Clark, and Robert F. Kennedy of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty, listening to testimony during a hearing in Jackson, Mississippi, on April 10, 1967" (Photo by Jim Peppler - source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

March 14, 1967

One of the first things Lyndon Johnson did after cooking Barry Goldwater's goose back in 1964 was to set up a whole banquet of sociological and economic legislation which he pushed through the 89th Congress.

The new president planned his political menu from earlier recipes developed by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Harry Truman's Fair Deal, and John Kennedy's New Frontier.

Taking a hard look at the hard core of poverty buried within the muscle and fat of America's overall affluence, Mr. Johnson decided that it was time for all citizens—including the most underprivileged—to be eating higher on the hog. Otherwise his dream of building a Great Society in this last half of the twentieth century could turn into a nightmare.

So the president put a top priority on fighting what he called the "War on Poverty." The legislative weapons of this war were ambitious projects with names like VISTA and Head Start and the Job Corps and community development job training and the Appalachia program. The ammunition in this war would be, of course, money—tax dollars to attack these national problems rooted in ignorance and prejudice and lack of opportunity.

So much antipoverty legislation was pushed through the Johnson Congress during the first session of the 89th that both Democrats and Republicans warned that the nation could not digest all the idealistic projects and programs enacted into law.

Local and state officials would conduct power struggles over who would get and control this flood of federal money, and it was inevitable that some of the appropriations would be misused and political empires built at the expense of taxpayers.

Undoubtedly some of these predictions came true during the past year or so that the War on Poverty has been getting underway. At any rate, a special Senate subcommittee headed by Democratic Senator Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania has started an investigation to see how the antipoverty battle is faring.

The Clark committee called its first witnesses yesterday, including people from poverty-stricken neighborhoods or regions in Connecticut, Kentucky, North Carolina, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.

There was plenty to be found wrong with welfare and educational projects and programs, these witnesses testified. Local politics had gotten mixed up with an Appalachia rehabilitation program. Racial prejudice had damaged a worker training project in North Carolina. Complex rules and regulations were hampering educational efforts in Connecticut. Bad administration was hurting antipoverty efforts in Minnesota. And just plain lack of money was threatening the War on Poverty in Pennsylvania.

But these witnesses, none of them rich and most of them poor, agreed on one thing. Now that the federal government has embarked on a national program to show its underprivileged citizens the road to economic and social justice to build useful lives in the American society, all these witnesses agreed to a man that there can be no turning back.

And what surprised both the Democratic and Republican members of the Senate subcommittee was the pride and determination of these witnesses to win this War on Poverty. "What did they want? What did they need?" asked the senators. "Guaranteed annual wage—family allotments, like some European nations have? Did they want that?"

The witnesses were shocked at the suggestion that, just because they and their people were poor, they wanted a handout.

"Giving money to people for doing nothing is ridiculous," said Mrs. Eudora Moore of New Haven.

Carl Johnson, a disabled coal miner from Harlan County, Kentucky, put it another way. "People," he said, "do not want to get paid for sorriness."

This is Bill Downs for ABC in Washington.