Why America Lost the War on Poverty-- and How to Win It

By Frank Stricker | Go to book overview

chapter one
THE 1950S
Limited Government, Limited Affluence

For many Americans the decade of the 1950s has an agreeable image. As people stumbled through the turmoil of later years, they remembered the era of Dwight Eisenhower and Lucille Ball as a time of prosperity and moral calm. Two books published in 1986 reflected this warm popular assessment: William O’Neill’s American High: The Years of Confidence, 1945–1960 and J. Ronald Oakley’s God’s Country: America in the 50s.

Of course, there were negative reviews; they included claims that anticommunism and consumerism quashed critical thinking and that economic advances were limited. Lawrence Wittner wrote of a “blackout of critical opinion,” and Douglas Miller and Marion Nowak assailed the decade’s celebration of “people’s capitalism,” the myth of a fair and democratic economy. These authors pointed out that millions of Americans remained poor and that economic power was still exercised by a tiny group of corporate leaders.1

My chapter is in the second school. It challenges our cheery image of the 50s by examining poverty and how Americans defined poverty. It judges whether the economy of the 50s cured poverty, and whether it did so without significant government assistance. Were the 50s proof that individual willpower and laissez-faire policies were sufficient antipoverty programs, as conservatives later claimed? We will see that growth was strong and that it cured much poverty, especially in the early 50s, but also that government’s role was vital in both promoting economic growth and lifting the destitute. Success against poverty evaporated in the late 50s when the president refused to spend.2

Linked to the issue of what government should do, a discussion began whose outcome would profoundly influence antipoverty policy. The discussion involved a big question. Were the high unemployment and persistent poverty of

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