The war on poverty, 50 years later

The term "war on poverty," like the term "war on drugs," is misleading; it suggests there is a battle to win, and move on. That, of course, is not the case. The term means only that the government has chosen a subject to focus on and deal with, no more. Things don't end after a war. Even wars don’t end after they conclude. 

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I note this as we think back on the so-called war on poverty of the last mid-century. The anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination recently brought back reminiscences of that era. This week some commentators have noted Lyndon Baines Johnson’s War on Poverty, leading to the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). That idea behind the program started under President Kennedy, but it was President Johnson's brilliant political instincts, and his employment of Sargent Shriver to head the effort, that brought the OEO to life. Author Robert Caro's fourth volume of his biographical series on LBJ describes that story of transitional presidencies brilliantly.

I was part of the task force that led to the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity. I was assigned by the Justice Department to work with representatives of other agencies and outside experts to develop the program inspired by Michael Harrington’s book The Other America. We worked in spare quarters provided by the Peace Corps, under Shriver's energetic guidance. It was an exciting time and exemplified the best of the JFK-LBJ era, high-minded government workers working hard to bring an important, socially useful program to life.

As disparities of economic opportunities expand, and our foreign misadventures draw to a close, I hope President Obama and the adversarial Congress address the problems we faced half a century ago. They still exist and call for new warriors to do battle for economic opportunities for those people who elected the President to lead the charge.

Goldfarb is an attorney, author and literary agent based in Washington, D.C., and Miami.