President Johnson's War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History

President Johnson's War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History

President Johnson's War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History

President Johnson's War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History

Synopsis

In January 1964, in his first State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson announced a declaration of "unconditional war" on poverty. By the end of the year the Economic Opportunity Act became law.The War on Poverty illustrates the interweaving of rhetorical and historical forces in shaping public policy. Zarefsky suggest that an important problem in the War on Poverty lay in its discourse. He assumes that language plays a central role in the formulation of social policy by shaping the context within which people view the social world. By terming the anti-poverty effort a war, President Johnson imparted significant symbolism to the effort: it called for total victory and gave confidence that the "war" was winnable. It influenced the definition of the enemy as an intergenerational cycle of poverty, rather than the shortcomings of the individual; and it led to the choice of community action, manpower programs, and prudent management as weapons and tactics. Each of these implications involves a choice of language and symbols, a decision about how to characterize and discuss the world. Zarefsky contends that each of these rhetorical choices was helpful to the Johnson administration in obtaining passage of the Economic Opportunity Ac of 1964, but that each choice invited redefinition or reinterpretation of a symbol in a way that threatened the program.

Excerpt

In the early evening of November 23, 1963--his first full day as president--Lyndon Johnson met with Walter Heller, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, to discuss the council's research on poverty in the United States. Only four days earlier, President Kennedy had decided to make antipoverty policy a major component of his 1964 legislative program, instructing Heller to develop the outline of a program for review shortly after Thanksgiving. Now instructions were needed from the new president concerning the direction the council's work should take. From his suite in the Executive Office Building, Johnson gazed across to the West Wing of the White House, reflected on the dedication of the White House staff to sustain the motion of government amidst national tragedy, and told Heller to proceed. "That's my kind of program," he is reported to have said. "It will help people."

More than twenty years have passed since President Johnson declared "unconditional war" on poverty and summoned Americans with his vision of a Great Society. In the climate of the 1980s such talk seems a stale throwback to another time, naive at best and suspect at worst.

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