Reparations to Poverty: Domestic Policy in America Ten Years after the Great Society

Reparations to Poverty: Domestic Policy in America Ten Years after the Great Society

Reparations to Poverty: Domestic Policy in America Ten Years after the Great Society

Reparations to Poverty: Domestic Policy in America Ten Years after the Great Society


Why did America launch a war on poverty in 1964?
- What forces doomed the noble campaign from the start?
- Who paid the cost of escalation and failure?
In Reparations to Poverty, an outside observer identifies six antagonistic forces that provoked, obstructed, and ultimately defeated the greatest ambition of the Great Society if not human experience: Public versus Private; Federal versus State and Local; Urban versus Rural and Suburban; Mainstream versus Minorities; Prevention versus Relief; and, in particular, Economic versus Social Policy. How each antagonism shaped and doomed the war on poverty and its legacy is traced in the records of participants, observers, and in a wealth of unpublished sources.


Years ago when I started out researching the literature on President Johnson's war on poverty program I had little idea what a vast and mined battlefield I was about to enter. Waving the white flag of a foreign observer I soon found myself surrounded by other flags. Some were still brand new and stiff, others half torn and soiled from many years of use, but they all seemed to obstruct my view of the battle and its casualties. Trying to reconstruct what had happened on these unhappy premises I often found it hard not to mistake those observers for the actual warriors.

Finding the warriors proved to be an impossible task. While my view of the poverty battle gradually cleared and enlarged itself, so did the battle grounds, and so did the tolls each party claimed to have inflicted on the other. Worse, the parties themselves had multiplied on the American side, often attacking each other in the heat of combat instead of fighting the invisible enemy guerrillas. Some parties claimed victories, some defeat. Some took these claims to mark the end of the war just as others rose to announce it had just begun. None of them described the accurate picture, that of a sad border dispute that had long ago lost its popularity and support from the capital. Yet no one dared to dispatch the soldiers in light of the rising number of enemy troops each week.

To confirm any of the tolls I went to inspect the military graves. My findings were disappointing. There were the tombs of two U.S. presidents, both Democrats, I was told. One of them had his brother and Attorney General buried beside him, and at a distance lay a civil rights leader. But where were all the other casualties? the grave keeper shrugged his shoulders. Some were lost. Some were hiding. Many had defected. As for the enemy -- as soon as their dead were granted a burial their graves would get torn up again over night -- most frustrating for the keeper who was supposed to keep count for the occasional government inspection.

My observation was getting nowhere. Instead I decided to visit the peace talks that had started soon after the war broke out. There I ran into some of the same observers I had already met on the battlefield. They told me that the meeting of the day was on war reparations. "War reparations?" I was incredulous. Why should the United States pay war reparations to poverty before even surrendering when it had started the war with the only goal of ending the hated tributes to poverty in the first place? After so many contradictory claims it was hard to believe this latest even less plausible one. Yet, for the first time the observers all agreed on the evidence they presented to me. It was a table entitled "Social Welfare Expenditures as Percent of gnp and Government Outlays: 1950 to 1979" from a recent Statistical Abstract of the United States.

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