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The public’s verdict on the War on Poverty

Fifty years ago, when Lyndon Johnson gave his first State of the Union address, in which he declared his historic “unconditional war on poverty,” his popularity was sky high (80 percent in an early January 1964 Gallup poll), and he led eventual Republican nominee Barry Goldwater by 75 to 18 percent in a January matchup. The poverty rate in the US was 19 percent. Today it is 15 percent.

There were only a few pollsters conducting public surveys in 1964. When Gallup asked in early 1964 whether poverty would ever be done away with in this country, 9 percent said it would, while 83 percent said it would not. 

Still, 73 percent favored an “all-out effort” to eradicate poverty in a 1969 question asked by the Opinion Research Corporation. In the same survey, however, 30 percent said the government’s anti-poverty program was helping the poor, while 52 percent said it wasn’t doing much good.

Americans thought private business and industry should be involved in the effort to end poverty. None of the 100 or so survey questions from the 1970s and early 1980s asked specifically about the war on poverty, but the contours of opinion were consistent with general beliefs in the 1960 questions. 

Knowledge about levels of poverty was low, and while people wanted something done about it and thought government should be significantly involved, there was enormous skepticism about what government could actually do to help.

The next comprehensive survey on domestic poverty was conducted in 1985 by the Los Angeles Times by our former AEI colleague William Schneider and the late I.A. Lewis. They wrote about it for AEI’s Public Opinion magazine in 1985. The unique survey included an oversample of people who according to federal guidelines were living in poverty. The pollsters concluded that Americans had enormous sympathy for the poor but

“There is plenty of cynicism and even fatalism about government efforts to eliminate poverty. Those attempts haven’t worked in the past, people feel, and they are not likely to work in the future.  The poor themselves are inclined to agree with this assessment.”

Nationally, 10 percent said the efforts of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations made things “much better” for the poor and another 45 percent said they made them “somewhat better.”

Thirty-two percent nationally said poverty programs had often worked (31 percent of the poor agreed). But 58 percent nationally and 56 percent of the poor said they seldom did. Still, Americans wanted a significant effort made.

Another substantial survey was conducted in 1994 by the Americans Talk Issues project. It found that 57 percent were aware of the war on poverty. Of this group, 26 percent said it cut poverty, 25 percent increased it, and 44 percent said it had no effect. Thirty-nine percent of the aware group had a positive impression of the program, 55 percent negative.

Views about poverty appear to be deep-seated, yet they aren’t clear cut. 

People favor action: they want the government to do more to alleviate poverty, and they think the poor have a very difficult time. 

At the same time, they are critical of federal poverty efforts; feel that states, localities, and private organizations are more in touch with the problems of the poor; and think the poor should take more responsibility for themselves. 

Recent survey questions focus more on the potential economic mobility of those in poverty.

Clearly, a generous nation is aware of the many challenges of eradicating poverty. New federal efforts to reduce poverty will be greeted with much skepticism by a public that wants to help.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Jennifer Marsico is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.