Why Presidents Stopped Talking About Poverty

tags: LBJ, War on Poverty



Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, is the author of Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade and is a partner at West Wing Writers. Follow him on Twitter at@JeffShesol.

...Johnson’s [war on poverty] speech merits rereading today—not just as a set-up for Reagan’s punchline, and not, as Rubio and other conservatives would have it, as an object lesson in one-size-fits-all, one-fell-swoop, big-government liberalism. (L.B.J., in fact, called for coöperation among federal, state, and local officials; one of the forgotten ironies of the war on poverty is that so much of the trouble took place at the local level, in the so-called community-action agencies.) What’s striking about Johnson’s speech, from our present perspective, is its premise: that “poverty is a national problem” requiring a national effort “in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.” Presidents don’t talk like that about poverty anymore. Indeed, Presidents—including the current one—don’t talk much about poverty at all.

A word search of the past fifty State of the Union addresses—including the speeches that new Presidents give to a joint session of Congress (not technically a State of the Union address but functionally similar)—turns up very few mentions of “poverty” or the “poor” after Johnson left office. L.B.J. used one or the other of these words forty times in his annual messages; it took the next five Presidents, combined, twenty-three years to equal that number. (Reagan’s joke accounts for two of those.) Bill Clinton’s total was twenty-four—nearly half coming in his final State of the Union, in 2000, when a roaring economy, a budget surplus, and more than twenty million jobs created gave him license to talk about pretty much whatever he pleased. President Obama, with last year’s address, evened the score, at eight, with George W. Bush, but most of Bush’s mentions concerned global poverty, not the home-grown variety....

The reasons for this are fairly straightforward. It’s a truism of American politics that helping the poor is an idea that (forgive me) polls poorly. The manifest failures in the war on poverty, the relentlessness of Republicans in exploiting those failures, and the unwillingness of Democrats to stand behind its real successes, all help explain that. Whatever the accomplishments of the war on poverty—and there were many—its disappointments created a kind of collective exhaustion with the subject and the complex political, moral, and economic questions it raises about our shared obligation to those among us with the least....



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