The Legacy of the War on Poverty: A 50-Year Retrospective


November 18, 2011
6050 Institute for Social Research
426 Thompson Street
Ann Arbor, MI


When President Johnson declared an unconditional “War on Poverty” in his inaugural State of the Union Address (January 8, 1964), roughly 35 million Americans, or 18 percent of the population, fell below the poverty line. The "War on Poverty" aimed "not only to relieve the symptom of poverty but to cure it, and above all to prevent it." In the next two years, Johnson secured legislation that provided federal funds for elementary, secondary and higher education; launched Medicare and Medicaid; expanded housing subsidies, urban development programs, job training, food stamps and welfare benefits; and passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In addition, the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act initiated well-known programs such as Head Start, Community Health Centers and Job Corps.

By 1970, spending on the collection of War on Poverty programs had increased to 15.1 percent of the federal budget, reflecting a more than tripling of real expenditures within five years. But prominent scholars were already concluding that the War on Poverty's "promises were extreme; the specific remedial actions were untried and untested; the finances were grossly inadequate; the political restructuring was so vulnerable that it had to be radically reformed within a few years after the program was launched (Ginzberg and Solow 1974: p. 219)." By 1988, President Ronald Reagan joked in his State of the Union Address that "the federal government fought the war on poverty and poverty won." Indeed, one important legacy of the War on Poverty is the widespread view that social policies are ineffective in preventing or reducing poverty.

The broad objective of this project is to reevaluate this view. The War on Poverty was fought on many fronts with many programs - many of which continue today. In the fifty years after Johnson's declaration, social scientists have learned much about the shorter and longer-term effects of this era's programs, but many questions remain for scholars and policy makers.

Sponsors and Organizers

This conference is sponsored by the National Poverty Center at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, with support from the University of Michigan's Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), College of Literature Arts and Sciences, and Department of Economics.

It is organized by Martha Bailey, Assistant Professor of Economics, and Sheldon Danziger, Henry J. Meyer Distinguished University Professor of Public Policy, University of Michigan.

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Agenda and Conference Presentations

Friday, November 18


8:15 AM - 8:45 AM

Contintental Breakfast (provided)


8:45 AM - 9:15 AM

Introductions and Overview of Project
Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger, University of Michigan

Presentation Slides


9:15 AM -10:30 AM

The War on Poverty's Human Capital Programs
Head Start and Preschool
Jens Ludwig and Chloe Gibbs, University of Chicago, and Doug Miller, University of California, Davis

Presentation Slides

K-12 Programs
Elizabeth Cascio, Dartmouth College, and Sarah Reber, University of California, Los Angeles

Presentation Slides

Higher Education Programs
Bridget Terry Long, Harvard University

Presentation Slides

Employment and Training Programs
David Card, University of California, Berkeley


10:30 AM - 10:45 AM



10:45 AM - 12:00 PM

The Legacy of the War on Poverty for Cities, Race Relations, and Politics
Place-Based Policies and Economic Development
Jens Ludwig, University of Chicago, and Edgar Olsen, University of Virginia

Presentation Slides

Race and the War on Poverty

David Harris, Cornell University

Presentation Slides

The Political Economy of the War on Poverty
Rob Mickey, University of Michigan


12:00 PM - 1:00 PM

Lunch (provided)


1:00 PM - 2:30 PM

The War on Poverty's Safety Net
Social Safety Net for Children and Families
Jane Waldfogel, Columbia University

Presentation Slides

Medical Safety Net for Children and Families
Barbara Wolfe, University of Wisconsin

Presentation Slides

The Social Safety Net for the Elderly
Kathleen McGarry, University of California, Los Angeles

Presentation Slides

The Medical Safety Net for the Elderly
Katherine Swartz, Harvard University

Presentation Slides


2:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Concluding Discussion and Plans for June Conference
Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger


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