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date: 03 March 2024

America’s Wars on Poverty and the Building of the Welfare Statefree

America’s Wars on Poverty and the Building of the Welfare Statefree

  • David TorstenssonDavid TorstenssonDavid Torstensson was awarded his doctoral degree in American history from Oxford University in 2009. The title of his dissertation is “The Politics of Failure: Community Action and the Meaning of Great Society Liberalism.”


On January 5, 2014—the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty—the New York Times asked a panel of opinion leaders a simple question: “Does the U.S. Need Another War on Poverty?” While the answers varied, all the invited debaters accepted the martial premise of the question—that a war on poverty had been fought and that eliminating poverty was, without a doubt, a “fight,” or a “battle.”

Yet the debate over the manner—martial or not—by which the federal government and public policy has dealt with the issue of poverty in the United States is still very much an open-ended one.

The evolution and development of the postwar American welfare state is a story not only of a number of “wars,” or individual political initiatives, against poverty, but also about the growth of institutions within and outside government that seek to address, alleviate, and eliminate poverty and its concomitant social ills. It is a complex and at times messy story, interwoven with the wider historical trajectory of this period: civil rights, the rise and fall of a “Cold War consensus,” the emergence of a counterculture, the Vietnam War, the credibility gap, the rise of conservatism, the end of “welfare,” and the emergence of compassionate conservatism. Mirroring the broader organization of the American political system, with a relatively weak center of power and delegated authority and decision-making in fifty states, the welfare model has developed and grown over decades. Policies viewed in one era as unmitigated failures have instead over time evolved and become part of the fabric of the welfare state.


  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • Urban History
  • Labor and Working Class History

Since President Lyndon B. Johnson left office in 1969 competition between America’s two major political parties has in many ways centered on their relationship to the conflicts of the late 1960s. On most major issues, whether it is how the United States is governed, what role the federal government should play vis-à-vis the states, how minorities—ethnic or sexual—should be treated, or the role of the Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution, the real and imaginary divisions the 1960s spawned continue to profoundly shape American politics. By and large these divisions have discredited American liberalism, making the 1960s known as the decade of “liberal overreach.”1 American conservatives have for decades argued that the expansion of government through the Great Society programs was a mistake and often failed to help its intended recipients, the poor and underprivileged.2 Charles Murray in his mid-1980s social policy blockbuster Losing Ground flatly stated that: “We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead. We tried to remove the barriers to escape from poverty, and inadvertently built a trap.”3

While historians and social scientists have generally been more nuanced in their assessment of the Great Society, there is still a distinct sense in the literature that if not outright failures, the Johnson administration’s social programs did not live up to their expectations and were, at the very least, a missed opportunity.4 Indeed, in one of the leading textbooks on American postwar history William Chafe has argued that the antipoverty effort was fundamentally flawed because policy makers never realized that what was really needed to fight poverty was a massive jobs program and redistribution of income. Other historians have agreed. They have argued that a massive program of employment and/or large-scale income redistribution would have been much more successful and desirable than the War on Poverty.5

This broadly negative judgment on the Great Society (and in particular the War on Poverty) has become part of the wider narrative on the American welfare state. Ramshackle and largely ineffective, it is often accused of and criticized for not living up to the size and standards set by other developed countries, most notably in Europe. The manner in which the United States fights (or doesn’t fight) poverty is an important example often referred to as illustrating this broader point. Negative pronouncements are made every year in conjunction with the Census Bureau’s publication of the official poverty rates. The perennial questions asked are variations on if America needs a new war on poverty or why decades on (since the original 1964 launch) the war is still being lost.6 Indeed, critics of varying political colors point to how rates of poverty have barely budged since the mid-1960s and that compared to European countries the United States is far behind and spends ever less on the poor.7 In the late 1950s and early 1960s the poverty rate stood at over 20 percent.8 By the early 1970s this had fallen to close to 10 percent and the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest (2013) estimated rate is 14.5 percent.9 For example, noted economist and public policy doyen Jeffrey Sachs in 2006 argued in Scientific American that the United States (and other “Anglo Saxon” modeled countries) had fallen behind the high-tax and high-spend Nordic region on most indicators of economic performance.10 He claimed that “the U.S. spends less than almost all rich countries on social services for the poor and disabled, and it gets what it pays for: the highest poverty rate among the rich countries and an exploding prison population.”11 Others have argued a similar point. In 2001 a National Bureau of Economic Research paper argued that the United States was indeed much less generous to its poor and did not fight poverty as well as many European countries.12 The authors argued that this was primarily a result of a political system that by and large was geared against income redistribution and a concomitant lack of broad public support for income redistribution primarily due to racism.

The Great Society and War on Poverty programs offer a fascinating prism for understanding the evolution of the 20th-century American welfare state. Its postwar development is not only a story about a number of “wars” or individual political initiatives against poverty, but also about the growth of institutions within and outside government to address, alleviate, and eliminate poverty and its concomitant social ills. From the New Deal to modern-day reform efforts including the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the expansion of Medicare and Medicaid coverage through Medicare Part D and the most recent Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, one of the key characteristics of the American welfare state is its piecemeal and gradual evolution. While there have been a number of “big bang” reform efforts, overall the story of the postwar period is the incremental development of a welfare state that has evolved and changed as part of other major political and socioeconomic changes and processes. This development has not been driven only by a policy or reform initiative’s perception of success; more intriguingly, policies and reforms considered as grave political errors or failures in a particular era have over time become staples of American social policy. In this respect the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty initiative is instructive. It was largely discredited at the time and since, and few would argue that the Great Society and War on Poverty have an enviable reputation—political or otherwise. Yet the faith of its biggest and most maligned component—the Community Action Program—illustrates how a social policy can fail politically and by reputation, yet survive. Over the long-term the program itself and the ideas underpinning it have become an institutionalized and elemental part of the American welfare state.

“Fighting Man’s Ancient Enemies”: The War on Poverty and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society

I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President who helped feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of taxeaters. I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election … This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease, and ignorance, we shall overcome.13

— Lyndon Johnson, Special Message to the Congress, March 15, 1965

Johnson’s cause—the thing for which he hoped to be remembered—was the Great Society, his effort to outpace the New Deal, outflank group conflict, override class structure, and improve the lot of everybody in America.14

— Richard Neustadt, in Presidential Power, 1976 edition

When he spoke about poverty, Lyndon Johnson spoke with passion. Whether it be from his childhood growing up in rural Texas, his experience from a year out from college teaching destitute Mexican schoolchildren in Cotulla, south Texas, or in his first major political assignment during the mid to late 1930s managing the Texas National Youth Administration, the 36th president of the United States had a deeply personal relationship with poverty. Throughout his years in public office, in speeches and on the campaign trail, Johnson would frequently—no matter what the topic—revert back to images of the poor and of the basic needs and wants of all peoples, regardless of their color or background. In his public and private remarks the president expressed his belief that most people had the same basic wants and desire for education, medical care, and an opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty. Because this conviction was absolutely central to his presidential program, Johnson never saw the War on Poverty and poverty itself as being discrete policy issues isolated from his overall domestic program. On the contrary, most of the Great Society’s legislative goals and victories—the extension of civil rights, voting rights legislation, setting federal standards and providing funding for elementary and secondary education, funding health care for the elderly and poor through Medicare and Medicaid—were part of the same idea of building on the New Deal to provide and extend equality of opportunity to all.15

But poverty was never defeated. Instead of leading the fight on poverty, the President’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and its local staff were accused of playing an active part in the Newark riots of 1967, funding criminal gangs in Chicago, supporting the staging of racist theater performances in New York City, and embezzling federal money in Mississippi. Such key War on Poverty components as Community Action, the Job Corps, Legal Services, Upward Bound, and even the popular Head Start, were often mentioned in sensational news stories of violence, corruption, and financial mismanagement. Almost as quickly as it had risen to the top of the national policy agenda, the War on Poverty and its programs became one of the topics the president and White House least wanted to discuss. By the end of LBJ’s presidential term when poverty as an issue did present itself, it was in the context of the growing welfare rights movement and the newfound militancy of the poor. Revealingly, for these the president did not have much sympathy. For example, during the summer of 1968 the Poor People’s Campaign—originally a campaign idea by Martin Luther King Jr.—marched and set up a camp in Washington DC. Giving speeches and meeting with administration officials, the campaign demanded that the federal government and Congress do more for minorities and the poor. But the president was not moved. Illustrating just how much the times had changed from four years earlier, when the antipoverty campaign had been launched and Johnson had laid out his Great Society vision, LBJ complained to Agriculture Secretary Freeman: “the very people we are seeking to help in Medicare and education and welfare and Food Stamps are protesting louder and louder and giving no recognition or allowance for what’s been done.”16 In a remarkable glimpse of the subsequent staple conservative criticism that was to define the Great Society in a post-LBJ world, the president lamented the undesirable social consequences that his programs seemed to have resulted in: “Our efforts seem only to have resulted in anarchy … The women no longer bother to get married, they just keep breeding. The men go their way and the women get relief—why should they work?”17 If Vietnam became LBJ’s foreign policy albatross, the War on Poverty was viewed by many as his domestic one. Indeed, Time magazine in 1966 wrote that “next to the shooting war in Viet Nam, the spending war against home-front poverty is perhaps the most applauded, criticized, and calumniated issue in the U.S.”18

Not much has changed since the 1960s. Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 sound bite—“we had a war on poverty—poverty won”19—if not a wholly accepted verdict, still rings true to a lot of subsequent observers and the American public. Indeed, the chief political legacy of the Great Society and War on Poverty programs can best be understood through this prism of chaotic failure. Politically the results have been stark and largely negative for the Democratic Party. Drained by the war in Vietnam and the general perception that although government programs were not directly responsible for urban rioting and student militancy, they were not doing enough to discourage them, the Johnsonian brand of consensus politics that had so dominated the Democratic Party for nearly two decades fell apart. Beginning in 1968 Democrats in a post-Johnson world embraced what many voters deemed social and political radicalism and abandoned the center ground. Indeed, presidential elections since have often been fought on the issues and perception of the issues permeating from the 1960s. In the words of former presidential speech writer to George W. Bush David Frum, Republicans have been “reprising Nixon’s 1972 campaign against McGovern for a third of a century.”20 The results have been profound: since 1968 virtually no Democratic presidential candidate either running as a self-described liberal or labeled as one by his Republican opponent has won an election. In fact, those who have run as outspoken liberals—George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984—lost forty-nine states each and were beaten in some of the biggest landslides in American electoral history.

For the American welfare state the political legacy and poor reputation of the Great Society programs have meant that it has often found itself facing criticism of not doing enough for its intended recipients while maintaining a deep unpopularity with the general public. As sociologist John Myles has put it, there is a general perception that “for middle-aged, middle-income Americans, the welfare state is virtually all cost and no benefit.”21 Yet while critical in contributing to these negative perceptions of the welfare state, the negative political history and legacy of the Great Society is only half of the story. Paradoxically, many of the most heavily criticized anti-poverty programs are the most misunderstood, as they have had, and continue to have, a long-lasting impact on social and welfare services in the United States.

Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: The Community Action Program and the Divisions of the 1960s

While more famous programs, such as Project Head Start and Legal Services, have achieved higher levels of visible success and entrenchment within the American social policy framework, it is arguable whether any of the War on Poverty programs have been more influential on American social policy than the Community Action Program (CAP).

When it was launched in the mid-1960s, Community Action was meant to be a way of funneling federal support directly to local communities and involving these communities in the design and implementation of local anti-poverty action programs. It was in many ways intended to bypass conventional interest groups and involve a multitude of stakeholders. Indeed, communities consisting of the poor, local government, and business and labor interests would come together and form not-for-profit Community Action Agencies (CAAs) to coordinate, engage, and devise plans for tackling the problems of local poverty. The CAP designers believed that locally planned and implemented programs would stand a better chance of successfully fighting poverty and coordinating existing federal, state, and local efforts than any program that was centrally designed and managed through existing federal departments. In particular this was a view supported and promulgated by the president’s economic counselors including Walter Heller and Charles Schultze of the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) and Bureau of the Budget (BOB), respectively. Yet the CAP quickly became one of the Johnson administration’s most heavily criticized and maligned programs. At root was a basic and unresolved disagreement over what Community Action actually meant.

To some the idea of Community Action was simply a management vehicle, a way of coordinating the many disparate and overlapping anti-poverty programs existing within the federal, state, and local bureaucracies. Community Action was in this light viewed as a deliverer and coordinator of services to combat poverty. Certainly, consultation with the poor and participation of the poor were elemental parts of this approach, but this version of Community Action was not about political or social empowerment. It was simply a new way of more efficiently coordinating programs and engaging the poor in an effort to help them help themselves.22 Bypassing state government and distributing federal funds directly to the CAAs was administratively a relatively new approach,23 but one based on what the White House and administration viewed as the “traditional and time-tested American methods of organized community effort to help individuals, families and whole communities to help themselves.”24 This was also the view held by many in Congress. For example, Republican congressman Albert Quie was a staunch supporter of the Community Action concept, if harsh critic of the OEO, arguing that the Community Action concept devolved power locally.25 Similarly, Carl Perkins, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee to which the poverty bill was referred to in March 1964, supported the idea of local community involvement and participation of the poor.26

But to others, Community Action translated into direct political empowerment—a way of forcefully confronting political and economic power structures. It was a way of taking, and giving, power to the poor by means of confrontation. This type of Community Action was closely associated with the thinking of Saul Alinsky, a former Chicago academic and community organizer who ran several independent community organizations around the country and later became associated with some of the more radical OEO-funded programs in Syracuse and Chicago. Crucially, this brand of Community Action became the popularized perception of the program and was extensively covered by major news outlets and in Congress throughout the 1960s.27

President Johnson’s views on what Community Action would do to shake up social policy and local government appear to be very different and certainly a lot less radical than those of other proponents of Community Action. As he would later reveal in his memoirs: “This plan [community action] had the sound of something brand new and even faintly radical. Actually, it was based on one of the oldest ideas of our democracy, as old as the New England town meeting—self determination at the local level.”28 The tragedy of Community Action, the OEO, and the War on Poverty is that these efforts never had the type of leadership and clarity of purpose that could have made this vision a political reality and from the beginning effectively sidelined the noisy minority of radicals both within the OEO and on the ground. The anti-poverty director Sargent Shriver was never wholeheartedly committed to the Johnsonian view of the War on Poverty and Community Action. While this does not mean that he was committed to a more radical view of Community Action, Shriver’s political ambitions and willingness to cater to some of his more radical constituents and own staff meant that the fundamental confusion about the purpose of Community Action and the War on Poverty—highlighted in management survey after management survey of the agency—was never resolved.29 When the anti-poverty director finally attempted to grapple with this fundamental problem in 1967 by amending the anti-poverty legislation to include more representation of local government, the OEO had already reached a political endgame. Once the ghettos started burning and conflict and militancy firmly replaced consensus and peaceful civil rights, neither the OEO director nor the White House were in any position to stem the tide.

When CAP was launched, Shriver expressed the sentiment that it relied “on the traditional and time-tested American methods of organized community effort to help individuals, families and whole communities to help themselves.”30 While this was certainly the view that the president took, Shriver never consistently or convincingly maintained this position. Norbert Schlei, Department of Justice lawyer and drafter of the original Economic Opportunity Act in 1964, has argued that relatively early on there was a real shift in the emphasis of the poverty program, a shift that came from the anti-poverty director himself:

I think the whole concept [of maximum feasible participation and Community Action] began to evolve and it got to be much more this matter of putting the target population in charge, putting the local people in charge of the federal money … I really hadn’t understood that that was part of it … I think that even while it was not yet passed [the EOA] there appeared some drift in the whole thinking about community action … Some of it came out of Shriver. I would hear Shriver say things that made me feel that there had been some evolution in thinking since I was directly involved … the idea of putting the target population in a power position and the idea of putting the local government people in a power position seemed to me to be talked about like they were much more integral to the whole idea than I had understood originally.31

Other OEO insiders have supported this view. For example, Eric Tolmach, who worked on CAP in the OEO, has also described Shriver as sending very mixed messages to those within the agency who supported radical Community Action. Tolmach argued that Shriver felt that by supporting radical CAPs “it separated him from the average bureaucrat in town, and it gained him some credibility on the one hand with large groups of people who were for doing this kind of thing, and with the poor.”32 This is an important aspect of the history of the War on Poverty as it ties in with the bigger narrative of the changing politics of poverty and the Democratic Party during the mid to late 1960s.

Ambitious Democratic politicians such as Sargent Shriver and Bobby Kennedy—and even some Republicans like New York mayor John Lindsay33—saw the radicalization of the political discourse that permeated this period as an opportunity as well as a shift in how future elections and voters would be won. For Shriver, building up and maintaining a natural constituency through the poverty programs was a way of connecting with this new type of politics and its new constituents. Indeed, some have argued that this was in fact Shriver’s raison d’être for staying on as OEO director. In his oral history interview for the Johnson library, Ben Heinemann (chairman of one of the internal White House policy task forces) described Shriver’s and the president’s working relationship as “terrible” and commented that the only reason Shriver stayed on was “ambition” and a desire to “remain in the public view.”34 The anti-poverty director, Heinemann said, “didn’t have a good alternative [to the War on Poverty] that would still have been in the public eye.”35 That he was intent on running for office was clear to Heinemann, who described Shriver in 1967 as being “anxious to talk … about the possibilities of his running for Governor in Illinois in ’68.”36

But Shriver’s constituency and brand of New Politics did not have the kind of national electoral impact for which he had hoped. In 1968 the Democratic presidential coalition fell apart with Richard Nixon and George Wallace combining to shave off almost 20 percentage points off LBJ’s 1964 margin of victory over Goldwater. The New Politics never emerged as a winning electoral force; instead, it created the bedrock for the success of the Republican coalition. In no small measure this was caused by the perceived radicalism of the New Politics constituents: younger voters, Vietnam protesters, and radical civil rights and welfare activists. Many of these groups took their roots in the poverty programs and the type of militancy that became the public image of the OEO. These groups contributed to splitting the Democratic Party by pushing white blue-collar voters into the GOP and shaping subsequent winning Republican presidential coalitions. When Shriver finally ran as George McGovern’s vice presidential candidate in 1972, Richard Nixon leaned heavily on his opposition to this New Politics coalition and scored a historic victory on par with Johnson’s eight years earlier. Similarly, in 1976 when Shriver was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, he did not win a single primary; his best showing was in Vermont, where he came in second, gaining 28 percent of the vote and losing to the eventual nominee, Jimmy Carter.

In many ways, the history of Community Action represents a microcosm for the wider War on Poverty and Great Society effort. Maligned at the time, both the very nature of the program and its achievements tell a different story. Now lost in the broader fireworks of the 1960s, the Community Action Program at the time became the prime example of everything that had gone wrong with the anti-poverty effort and a symbol of the Johnson administrations’ and “big government’s” overreach. The most famous and scathing criticism came from former White House and executive branch insider D. P. Moynihan, whose negative assessment of the War on Poverty set the tone for both contemporary understanding and subsequent analysis.37 In 1968 he went as far as to claim that intended or not, Community Action had contributed to the past summers’ rioting:38 Although vehemently denied in government press release after press release, this image of the OEO and Community Action Agencies as playing a prominent part in the tearing up of the American social fabric persisted in the popular as well as the political mind.

Yet for all the bad press and brouhaha it is not clear that a majority, or even a large minority, of Community Action Agencies were engaged in the types of activities as depicted in the media. Certainly, there were many instances in which a local agency got into political trouble and hit the front pages of the national newspapers for all the wrong reasons, but these instances are not representative of the policy directions taken by all, or even a majority, of the agencies that had been established by the mid-1960s. By 1967 there were almost 1,100 Community Action Agencies in operation, and only a handful of these can be described as having been marked by the type of radicalism and conflict that has come to define the entire program. And, as accurately noted by historian Alice O’Connor, these grants were primarily from the CAP’s experimental demonstration programs.39 These facts were noted and understood at the time within the White House. Internal memoranda and research suggests that there was broad support and understanding for the real achievements of Community Action within the War on Poverty.40 For example, in the recommendations to President Johnson of the 1966 Taskforce on Government Organization it was argued that “community action agencies remain the best available instrument for integrating and focusing government and private social service programs at the local neighborhood and community level” and that “at their best, community action agencies reflect a thoroughly American, solidly conservative approach to social problems: they are locally inspired and controlled, and responsive to the disadvantaged people whom they seek to serve.”41 Even President Johnson himself lent the program his vocal support in the 1967 State of the Union address, which dealt in some detail with the War on Poverty and, if anything, reaffirmed the president’s commitment to fighting poverty through localized Community Action.42 Yet, these messages never reached the broader public or, until recently, the scholarship.43 But for all the negative press, Community Action has lived on and continued to shape American social policy.

While the OEO was finally disbanded by President Gerald Ford in 1976, Community Action has survived as a federally funded program. Today there are over 1,000 Community Action Agencies.44 The latest data from the National Association for State Community Services Programs shows that in 2013 Community Action Agencies served close to 16 million individuals (part of 6.7 million families) of which over 70 percent were at or below the federal poverty line.45

But in contrast to its role set out in the original Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the federal government now plays a reduced part in the funding and monitoring of national Community Action. Instead, much of the responsibility has since the 1990s been transferred to the state level.

Created as a new federal agency by Congress in December 1974, the Community Services Administration (CSA) replaced the disbanded OEO. Never part of the Executive Office of the President, the CSA remained a separate independent agency outside the established federal bureaucracy until its own subsequent closure in 1981. That year President Ronald Reagan replaced, and Congress approved, the CSA with a small Office of Community Services lodged in the Department of Health and Human Services. This office remains in operation and is today responsible for the government-supported Community Action effort. But under the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1981 the federal government’s direct role in funding local CAPs was replaced by Community Service Block Grants (CSBG). No longer do federal grants go directly to local Action Agencies. Instead CSBGs are distributed to the states, which then in turn administer them to organizations that are officially designated Community Action Agencies under the CSBG Act.46 These block grants are applied for by individual states and approved on an annual basis by the Office of Community Services. Outside of government, Community Action is represented by the National Association of Community Action Agencies, a group formed in 1971 to provide a national voice for Community Action. This association professes to be a “national forum for policy on poverty and to strengthen, promote, represent, and serve its network of member agencies to assure that the issues of the poor are effectively heard and addressed.”47

It would seem that if longevity is any measure of success, there is a strong argument to be made that Community Action has been anything but a failure. Although the CAAs of today are different from those of the 1960s, the requirement that Community Action boards should be made up of a combination of the poor, local and state government, and the private sector is still there.48 Outlasting the Office of Economic Opportunity, the continued existence of these CAAs suggests that while the centralized operational arm of President Johnson’s War on Poverty could not survive on its own, the local organization, run for and by local communities, could, and has. This is a powerful testament to the idea that decentralized policymaking in social and welfare policy involving all relevant stakeholders is as an enduring part of American social policy as ever. Remarkably, this belief has since the late 20th century crossed party and ideological lines, becoming a defining characteristic of modern American conservatism.

From Community Action to Compassionate Conservatism

In the mid-1990s compassionate conservatism became part of the mainstream political lexicon. Pioneered by Texas academic Marvin Olasky in his 1992 The Tragedy of American Compassion, compassionate conservatism was embraced by a number of influential Republican thinkers, politicians, and strategists. Indeed, during this time many Republican think tanks and grassroots organizations acutely felt the need for the Republican Party to redefine itself, and move away from the popularized image of the party with a cold heart, dead-set against helping the poor and needy. John Ashcroft, Ralph Reed, Bob Dole, Bill Bennett, Jack Kemp, Dan Coats, and Jim Talent all became part of this burgeoning compassion movement. Loudest of the voices calling for a new direction was freshly appointed Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, who pleaded for more compassion in the GOP. During his first session as Speaker he repeatedly made reference to Olasky’s work when outlining the need for Republicans to adopt a new conservative agenda.49

But it was not only in Washington that Republicans were talking about compassion. While George W. Bush had shown an interest in the founding ideas of compassionate conservatism as early as 1993—even meeting with Professor Olasky—and had during his first term as governor made it easier under Texas state law for private and religious charities to operate, Bush would not become compassionate conservatism’s national face until his 1998 gubernatorial re-election. On victory night of his landslide win he declared that he had big plans for the future, wanting to give the Republican Party a new look, that of compassionate conservatism.50

During the following primary campaign for the Republican 2000 presidential nomination, Governor Bush set out his vision and philosophy for what compassionate conservatism meant to him and a future Bush administration. In a defining speech summing up the work of a task force of policy analysts and academics he had appointed in February, Bush in July 1999 outlined what compassionate conservatism meant and what as president he could do for America’s poor. Central to this speech, and the governor’s conception of compassionate conservatism, was the idea that anti-poverty initiatives should be local and as far as possible designed and run by third-sector agencies. He argued that local communities, religious organizations, and other nongovernmental groups should together with local, state, and the federal government fight poverty and provide opportunity for the poor, homeless, and needy:

We will make a determined attack on need, by promoting the compassionate acts of others. We will rally the armies of compassion in our communities to fight a very different war against poverty and hopelessness, a daily battle waged house to house and heart by heart. This will not be the failed compassion of towering bureaucracies. On the contrary, it will be government that serves those who are serving their neighbors. It will be government that directs help to the inspired and the effective. It will be government that both knows its limits and shows its heart. And it will be government truly by the people and for the people.51

To Governor Bush, such a plan to fight poverty stood in stark contrast to the efforts of the War on Poverty and the Great Society, which he accused of being too bureaucratic, government-centered, and lacking in true compassion:

In the past, presidents have declared wars on poverty and promised to create a great society. But these grand gestures and honorable aims were frustrated. They have become a warning, not an example. We found that government can spend money, but it can’t put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives.52

The ideas of fighting poverty through local charities and religious organizations became a defining feature of Bush’s successful presidential campaign. Compassionate conservatism and the belief that faith-based organizations could revolutionize the way in which the federal government delivered its social welfare programs became one of the campaign’s core selling points on domestic policy. Indeed, as early as June 1999 political correspondent Adam Nagourney of the New York Times was writing about compassionate conservatism as being Governor’s Bush’s defining political slogan.53 Once he took office, the president’s Faith-Based Initiative was at the center of his compassionate agenda. While the actual legislation put forward for the initiative was primarily about the federal government not discriminating against religious groups when providing funding for local anti-poverty and social welfare services, at its heart the initiative was as much about local action being the best remedy for social problems like poverty, drug addiction, and single parenthood.54 Yet what Governor and then President Bush failed to at least publicly acknowledge was that the influence of the War on Poverty and Community Action had already extended and heavily influenced the manner in which America’s welfare state actually provides and delivers its public services. The Great Society’s, War on Poverty’s, and Community Action’s most important social policy legacy is perhaps the contribution it made toward the outsourcing of service provision to the third sector and nonprofits.

Community Action and Modern American Social Policy

Local, decentralized, usually not-for-profit and nongovernmental—in all but a few instances, these are the defining characteristics of the providers of many of the public services Americans receive today. Since the 1960s and the launch of the Great Society programs, the growth in the provision of governmental services through the third sector has been astonishing. Although in sheer numbers the Social Security program is still the number one social welfare program today, many public services are not provided through or by the American government. Instead, government services are now largely provided by nongovernment entities and nonprofits in particular. This is especially pronounced with regard to social services and human services, where nonprofit organizations actually deliver a larger share of the services government finances than do government agencies themselves.55 Through some of the biggest federal welfare and human services programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, student aid, and food stamps, the American state at all levels—federal, state, and local—serves mainly as the ultimate payer and regulator, but not provider of public services.

Similarly, and while conceptually different, the expansion of the use of grants-in-aid programs since the 1960s has also significantly bolstered the use of nonprofits and nongovernmental entities in the provision of public services. Through grants-in-aid the federal government provides block grants to state and local governments with relatively few programmatic requirements on how services should be provided. These grants are then used and distributed by state and local governments, which contract out the provision of services to nonprofits and the private sector.56

In 2011 it was estimated that over 30 percent of the federal government’s budget went to the direct purchasing of public services or grants to provide such services.57 For nonprofits in particular the growth has been significant both for direct purchases and grants, growing by an estimated 195 percent for the former between 1977 and 1997 and over 330 percent for the latter in the two decades between 1982 and 2002.58

While the seeds of the use of nonprofits and nongovernmental entities existed prior to the 1960s, the Johnson administration’s anti-poverty and welfare programs greatly expanded and institutionalized the use of the third sector in the provision of public services, primarily through the War on Poverty programs and the use of Community Action. Indeed, political scientist and noted historian of the third sector Peter Hall saw the War on Poverty as central to the growth of the postwar nonprofit sector:

if the political right supplied the rhetoric for efforts to down-size government, liberals and progressives could take credit for actually implementing large-scale privatization, first through local nonprofit organizations—many of them faith-based—subsidized by Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and later through deinstitutionalization of the mentally disabled and the subsequent creation of a vast system of community-based treatment and care provided by nonprofits operating under contract with state and local government.59

Conclusion: America’s Wars on Poverty and Welfare State

In his classic 1990 dissection of the welfare state, Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen outlined three welfare state regimes: liberal, corporatist, and social democratic.60 With its traditional reliance on the power of the market, strict entitlement rules and means-testing, low social welfare benefits, and a culture of individualism the United States was described as the archetypical liberal regime standing in stark contrast to most European nations.61 While Esping-Andersen’s work has been much criticized since—and revised by the author—the idea that the American welfare state is fundamentally different (indeed even exceptional) in size, purpose, and function from other developed Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) economies lives on both inside and outside academia. But what does the evidence actually show?

Traditionally, measures of welfare states and social protection look at the availability of social insurance (e.g., unemployment and health insurance) and availability of welfare and assistance programs, as well as labor market policies.62 More often than not these are measures of total public and government expenditure. Using these traditional measures of social spending as an initial gauge of the size of the welfare state it is clear that the United States has historically spent less than other developed countries on social and welfare services. For instance, OECD data from 2014 show public social expenditure in the United States totaled just over 19 percent of GDP.63 This is in comparison to an average of between 28 and 32 percent in France, Finland, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, and others. Clearly the United States is behind these countries. And for this year the United States was also below the OECD average of 21.62 percent but ahead of both Canada and Australia. But levels of public spending do not necessarily tell the whole picture.

Less attention has been paid to private or third-sector spending and activities and indirect variables such as the impact of tax laws. Regarding the latter, instead of authorizing direct social spending, American lawmakers have long used the federal tax code as a social policy tool. The most notable example in which the tax code works as a government subsidy by tax exempting certain types of benefits is the employer-based health insurance benefit, which is exempt from income and payroll taxation. While this benefit has been in place since the 1940s it was formalized into law in the 1954 Revenue Act.64 The growth and development of this benefit has profoundly shaped the American welfare state and while nominally in the nonpublic sphere of spending it is nevertheless a significant de facto concession of tax revenue for the federal government. In 2013 this was estimated to amount to a loss of revenue to the federal government of $250 billion or roughly 7 percent of the total 2013 federal budget.65 Moreover, if one looks beyond levels of public social expenditure and also include spending outside of government the U.S. position changes dramatically. Looking at the latest total public and private spending estimates by the OECD the United States actually has one of the highest rates of social expenditure—and biggest welfare states—in the world at close to 29 percent of GDP in 2011, behind only France.66 Table 1 shows this data for the United States and other OECD countries.

Table 1 Net total social expenditure (public and private), % of GDP, OECD countries 2011. 67

By comparison the country and welfare model the American welfare state is most often contrasted with, Sweden, is quite far behind with a rate of 24.6 percent of GDP net social expenditure in 2011. Furthermore, if one looks at the trajectory of public social expenditure over a longer time-frame it is not at all clear that the American postwar experience is any different from that of other developed countries or the EU. OECD data going back to 1960 suggest that while always lagging behind average public spending levels in the EU (which is explained by the higher levels of nonpublic spending) U.S. government expenditure has since the 1960s followed an almost identical trajectory. Table 2 shows public social expenditure from 1960 to 2014 comparing levels in the United States, Japan, EU21, and OECD.

Table 2 Public social expenditure, % of GDP, United States, Japan, EU-21, and OECD, 1960–2014. 68

As Table 2 shows, the spending patterns and trajectory are very similar across all countries and regions. Interestingly, the data in the table also suggest that social spending has over the long term, by and large been immune to changes in government and political affiliation. For example, except for the Reagan years, social expenditure in the United States grew quite markedly during periods of Republican administrations particularly in the 1970s and 2000s under presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Indeed, the period in which the biggest difference between levels of social expenditure between the EU 21 and the United States can be seen is between the mid-1970s and early 1980s. During this time social spending continued to grow in the EU21 while in the United States it actually decreased under President Jimmy Carter.

The above statistics and data from the OECD show that measured as a share of economic output the United States invests a similar amount to other developed countries in social spending. They also show how since the 1960s and throughout most of the postwar period the trajectory of American public social expenditure has not been markedly different from other developed economies. Instead, the difference between the United States and other countries has been the presence of nonpublic entities. One of the key findings by political scientist Jacob Hacker in his 2002 The Divided Welfare State was that in the United States a large portion of social spending and the make-up of the American welfare state is nonpublic.69 Looking at the history of the American welfare state, there was no Beveridge report or equivalent starting point for a complete overhaul and introduction of a welfare model. The closest the United States came to this was during the New Deal era and World War II. Some have indeed argued that U.S. policy planners during the latter stages of the New Deal (and particularly during the course of WWII) were intent on moving America toward a Beveridge-style full-employment welfare state.70

The War on Poverty and the Great Society illustrate the development of the postwar American welfare state. The Community Action Program specifically offers an instructive historical example of the ways in which the modern American welfare state—the provision of public services through nonprofits—gradually and paradoxically developed over decades out of what was and has been widely regarded as a prime example of a failed social policy. Mirroring the broader organization of the American political system, with a relatively weak center of power and delegated authority and decision-making in fifty states, the welfare model has developed and grown over decades. Policies such as Community Action viewed in one era as unmitigated failures have instead over time evolved and become part of the fabric of the welfare state.

Discussion of the Literature

There is no distinct unitary historiography of all themes covered in this article, that is, Great Society liberalism, President Johnson, the War on Poverty, Community Action, and the American welfare state. Instead, broadly speaking, scholars have focused on various aspects within these topics, which, while although often overlapping, are often best viewed and understood as coming from discrete research silos. For example, studying the American welfare state has often been the purview of social scientists. Perspectives have ranged from the quantitative to sociological to political institutional to a more traditional history narrative.71 Looking at the Great Society, the Johnson administration, and the War on Poverty programs, this literature can roughly be divided into two categories: that which looks specifically at, say, the War on Poverty (or specific programs or components of the War on Poverty including Community Action, Legal Services, etc.), and that which looks at either of these within the context of bigger themes like the 1960s, Great Society liberalism, the Johnson presidency, or the evolution of the American welfare state. Since the 1970s more has been published on the latter than the former; consequently, books on these broader themes make up the larger and more well-established literature. They include textbook accounts and more traditional sweeping narratives, including biographies. Because Community Action and the War on Poverty never lived up to their political or policy expectations—neither vanquished poverty or revolutionized the way federal, state, and local anti-poverty efforts were coordinated—much of the general historiography about the two tends to emphasize failure—failure to fight poverty, failure to adequately plan programs, failure to foresee the conflict that the War on Poverty programs (in particular Community Action) are viewed as invariably leading to. There is also a strong tendency to view Community Action and the War on Poverty as targeting black poverty. These ideas are as common in specialist studies as in general surveys of American history and the 1960s. Examples where one or more of these perceptions are prominent include William Chafe’s The Unfinished Journey, Walter Trattner’s From Poor Law to Welfare State, Irving Bernstein’s Guns or Butter, and Judith Russell’s Economics, Bureaucracy, and Race: How Keynesians Misguided the War on Poverty. There are a few exceptions to this negativism, including Robert F. Clark’s 2002 The War on Poverty: History, Selected Programs and Ongoing Impact, Michael Katz’s The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare, and John E. Schwarz’s America’s Hidden Success: A Reassessment of Public Policy from Kennedy to Reagan. However, these have had a relatively limited influence on public or academic perceptions of the poverty programs.

Recently, a new generation of scholars have been examining the War on Poverty and local programs, often from a grass-roots perspective. Examples of these include Kent B. Germany’s 2007 New Orleans after the Promises, Robert Bauman’s 2007 Journal of Urban History article “The Black Power and Chicano Movements in the Poverty Wars in Los Angeles,” Noel Cazenave’s 2007 Impossible Democracy: The Unlikely Success of the War on Poverty Community Action Programs, Susan Youngblood Ashmore’s 2008 Carry It On: The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, and Guian McKee’s 2008 The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia.72 These studies are all of real importance, as they form part of a new historiography that in many respects challenges established perceptions about the War on Poverty. They provide an often detailed and rich account of a particular local anti-poverty effort and real insight into the local politics of a program. While many of these studies still focus on urban areas, there has also emerged a new sub-field in the study of anti-poverty programs that examines its rural component.73 Just as with their urban counterparts these studies are adding nuance and much needed detail to the War on Poverty scholarship. They are showing how rural anti-poverty efforts functioned and were part of wider historical processes that were changing the complexion of American society, in particular the advance of civil rights in the South and Southwest.

Primary Sources

The National Archives, College Park, Maryland, and Lyndon Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas, house the most important primary sources with regard to the federal and presidential aspects of the War on Poverty, Johnson administration, and Community Action Program. For the Community Action Program the most relevant archival records and record groups are: National Archives, College Park, Maryland, Records of the Community Services Administration, Record Group 381, Headquarters Records of the Office of Economic Opportunity 1963–1981. For the War on Poverty and administration of the OEO the most relevant files in the Johnson library archives are organized around the President’s key staffers.74 The Johnson Library also houses a number of important oral history interviews of the key figures in the War on Poverty. The Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, Scripps Library and Multimedia Archive, houses a significant collection of oral history interviews and tape recordings from a number of postwar presidencies including the Johnson administration.75 Significantly, these collections are digital and housed in an online library accessible to all anywhere in the world.

Further Reading

  • Brauer, Carl M. “Kennedy, Johnson and the War on Poverty.” Journal of American History 69.1 (June 1982): 98–119.
  • Danziger, Sheldon, and Weinberg, Daniel H., eds. Fighting Poverty: What Works and What Doesn’t. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.
  • Davies, Gareth. From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.
  • Davies, Gareth. See Government Grow: Education Politics from Johnson to Reagan. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.
  • Gillette, Michael L. Launching the War on Poverty: An Oral History. New York: Twayne, 1996.
  • Heale, M. J. The Sixties in America: History, Politics and Protest. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001.
  • Heale, M. J. “The Sixties as History: A Review of the Political Historiography.” Reviews in American History 33.1 (March 2005): 133–152.
  • Hecker, J. The Divided Welfare State: The Battle over Public and Private Social Benefits in the United States. Washington, DC: New America Foundation, 2002.
  • Heidenhammer, Arnold J., Hugh Heclo, and Carolyn Teich Adams. Comparative Public Policy: The Politics of Social Choice in America, Europe, and Japan. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1990.
  • Hodgson, Godfrey. America in Our Time: From World War II to Nixon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Johnson, Lyndon. The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963–1969. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
  • Jorgenson, Dale W. “Did We Lose the War on Poverty?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 12.1 (Winter 1998): 79–96.
  • Katz, Michael. The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare. New York: Pantheon, 1989.
  • Levine, Robert A. The Poor Ye Need Not Have With You: Lessons from the War on Poverty. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970.
  • Marris, Peter, and Martin Rein. Dilemmas of Social Reform: Poverty and Community Action in the United States. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.
  • Matusow, Allen J. The Unravelling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s. London and New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Moynihan, Daniel P. On Understanding Poverty: Perspectives from the Social Sciences. New York and London: Basic Books, 1968–1969.
  • Moynihan, Daniel P. Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty. New York: Free Press, 1969.
  • Patterson, James T. America’s Struggle against Poverty 1900–1994. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Schwarz, John E. America’s Hidden Success: A Reassessment of Public Policy from Kennedy to Reagan. London and New York: Norton, 1988.
  • Skowronek, Stephen. Building a New American State—The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities 1877–1920. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Sundquist, James. Politics and Policy: The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Years. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1968.
  • Sundquist, James, ed. On Fighting Poverty: Perspectives from Experience. New York: Basic Books, 1969.
  • Trattner, Walter I. From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America. New York: Macmillan, 1989.
  • Woods, Randall. LBJ: Architect of American Ambition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.


  • 1. The Economist, Leader. “Is America Turning Left?” 11 August 2007.

  • 2. Prominent critics have included Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, D. P. Moynihan, Irving Kristol, and George W. Bush.

  • 3. Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 9.

  • 4. See: William Chafe, The Unfinished Journey: America since World War II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); Walter Trattner, From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America (New York: Macmillan, 1989); Ira Katznelson, “Was the Great Society a Lost Opportunity,” in The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, ed. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); Irving Bernstein, Guns or Butter The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); and Robert F. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (London: Collins, 1982) and The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent (London: Bodley Head, 1990).

  • 5. Chafe, The Unfinished Journey, 242; Allen J. Matusow, “The Great Society: A Twenty-Year Critique,” in Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism: A Brief Biography with Documents, ed. Bruce J. Schulman (Boston: Bedford Books, 1995), 186; and Judith Russell, Economics, Bureaucracy, and Race: How Keynesians Misguided the War on Poverty (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 5–15.

  • 6. See, for example, a January 5, 2014, New York Times article on the fifty-year anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty. The New York Times asked a panel of opinion leaders a simple question: “Does the U.S. Need Another War on Poverty?” While the answers varied, all the invited debaters accepted the martial premise of the question. That a war on poverty had been fought and that eliminating poverty was a “fight” or a “battle” was not in doubt.

  • 7. See, for example: National Public Radio “How America’s Losing the War On Poverty,” August 4, 2012; Robert Rector “How the War on Poverty Was Lost,” Wall Street Journal, January 7, 2014; Erika Eichelberger, Jaeah Lee, and A. J. Vicens, “How We Won—and Lost—the War on Poverty, in 6 Charts,” Mother Jones, January 8, 2014; and E. Porter, “The Measure of Our Poverty,” New York Times, September 20, 2013.

  • 8. C. DeNavas-Walt and D. Bernadette, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60–249, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2013 (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2014), 12.

  • 9. Ibid.

  • 10. Jeffrey Sachs, “The Social Welfare State, beyond Ideology,” Scientific American (November 2006), 3.

  • 11. Ibid.

  • 12. A. Alesina, E. Glaeser, and B. Sacerdote, “Why Doesn’t the US Have a European-Style Welfare State?” Harvard Institute of Economic Research, Discussion Paper Number 1933, Harvard 2001, 38–39.

  • 13. Lyndon Johnson, Special Message to the Congress, March 15, 1965, Public Papers.

  • 14. Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership, with Reflections on Johnson and Nixon (London and New York: Wiley, 1976), 34.

  • 15. One of the biggest and most important differences between the Great Society and the New Deal was that the former was to be achieved by the harnessing of capitalism and free enterprise. See, for example, the importance attached to economic growth theory and tax cuts to LBJ’s domestic program. On the contrary, the latter was justified as a consequence of the negative impact of the Great Depression and the perceived failures of unfettered capitalism.

  • 16. Quoted in Woods, LBJ, 843.

  • 17. Ibid.

  • 18. Time, “Poverty: Six-Star Sargent,” March 18, 1966, Time, online archive.

  • 19. Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a White House briefing for members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, May 1, 1987, Public Papers of the President.

  • 20. George Packer, “The Fall of Conservatism: Have the Republicans Run Out of Ideas?” New Yorker (May 26, 2008): 47–54.

  • 21. John Myles, “Postwar Capitalism and the Extension of Social Security into a Retirement Wage,” in The Politics of Social Policy in the United States, ed. Margaret Weir, Ann Shola Orloff, and Theda Skocpol (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 268.

  • 22. This was the version of Community Action that the Bureau of the Budget, Council of Economic Advisors, and President Johnson developed at the end of 1963 and early 1964. See D. P. Torstensson “The Politics of Failure, Community Action and the Meaning of Great Society Liberalism” (PhD diss., University of Oxford, 2009), chapter 2.

  • 23. There did exist cases where the federal government gave money directly to individuals, bypassing state and local authorities. Examples of this were direct aid under the Office of Education, grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, programs administered by the Welfare Administration and Vocational Rehabilitation Agency, and the Federal Aviation Agency. For fiscal 1965 new obligations of these funds were $1.462 billion. See War on Poverty Microfilm, Part 1, WH Central Files, Reel 1, microfilm shot 389.

  • 24. Sargent Shriver, Draft Document, “Charge to the Economic Opportunity Council,” December 7, 1964, War on Poverty Microfilm, WH Central Files, Reel 1, microfilm shots 452–455.

  • 25. Albert Quie, April 30, 1969, LBJ Oral History, Miller Center.

  • 26. Michael Gillette, Launching the War on Poverty: An Oral History (New York: Twayne, 1996), 125. Other Congressman, such as Phil Landrum, supported the EOA in 1964 and while Landrum became an outspoken critic of the OEO and Community Action he nevertheless supported the re-authorization of the EOA in 1967 with the insertion of the Green amendment. See Torstensson, “The Politics of Failure,” 231.

  • 27. Only months after the first grants had been approved, Community Action was making the newspaper headlines for all the wrong reasons. In March 1965 the Washington Post ran a page 1 story entitled “Poverty-War Conflict Erupts over Local Control.” This report detailed how the poverty program was generating conflict over the participation of the poor, particularly in the “most sensitive battle-ground” of Community Action. This was described as taking place all over the country, with the problem being particularly acute in Louisiana and Alabama, where there was the added issue of racial discrimination. On cue, national columnists and D.C. insiders Rowland Evans and Robert Novak published an Inside Report, “George Wallace vs. the Poor,” a few days after this article detailing the local and national politics of Community Action. In this piece the duo argued that the “reliance on local leadership is the Achilles heel of the community action program” and the cause of so much of the trouble both in North and South: “In the big cities, patronage-hungry political bosses are muscling in … [and] Wallace-style segregationists are applying their deadening touch in the Deep South.” By the end of March, a mere seven months after the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act, the Washington Post declared that “Civil War Goes on in Poverty Plans.” See Washington Post, March 6, 11, and 22, 1965, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

  • 28. Lyndon Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963–1969 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 74.

  • 29. Between 1965 and 1969 numerous management surveys of the OEO were carried out by the federal bureaucracy, private management consultants, independent groups, and the U.S. Comptroller General. With remarkable consistency, they all pointed to a similar set of problems the agency faced and over time failed to come to terms with: the inability to agree on and define what the War on Poverty and Community Action actually desired to achieve and an incapacity to draw clear lines of responsibility and communication between the different levels of the agency.

  • 30. Sargent Shriver, Draft Document, “Charge to the Economic Opportunity Council,” December 7, 1964, War on Poverty Microfilm, WH Central Files, Reel 1, microfilm shots 452–455.

  • 31. Norbert Schlei, May 15, 1980, LBJ Oral History, Miller Center.

  • 32. Eric Tolmach, April 16, 1969, LBJ Oral History, Miller Center.

  • 33. For example, in a bid to steer the political debate in a more liberal and for him personally more politically desirable direction, as member of the Kerner Commission Lindsay wrote the oft-cited report summary that gave a very polarizing view of the causes of rioting. The summary claimed baldly that America was moving toward two separate societies—one white, one black—and urgent, massive government action was required. From Gareth Davies, From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996), 204–205.

  • 34. Ben Heinemann, April 16, 1970, LBJ Oral History, Miller Center.

  • 35. Ibid.

  • 36. Ibid.

  • 37. Moynihan was fiercely critical of social scientists and sociologists whom he viewed as having played a key role in the poor performance of the War on Poverty. His criticism of the poverty program was part of a broader movement of former liberals moving away from the Democratic Party and the Great Society. By the late 1960s contemporary intellectuals and public policymakers were contributing to the popular chorus of critiques of the Great Society’s social programs, the War on Poverty chief among them. Many liberals like Moynihan and sociologists Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell became associated with Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, founders of what would become labeled as neo-conservatism. Magazines such as Public Interest and Commentary—edited by Kristol and Podhoretz, respectively—began criticizing the Great Society and the very idea of transformative government social programs. Moynihan featured articles in both throughout the late 1960s in which he attacked the War on Poverty and Community Action.

  • 38. Daniel P. Moynihan, “The Professors and the Poor,” Commentary (August 1968): 28, ProQuest Historical Magazines.

  • 39. Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 170–172.

  • 40. See “Memo From: Frederick Bohen, To: Members of the President’s Task Force on Government Organization, Subject: The Attached Paper on the Poverty Program and the Office of Economic Opportunity, November 30, 1966,” War on Poverty Microfilm, WH Aides A-M, Reel 4, microfilm shot 634–675.

  • 41. Letter from Ben Heinemann, December 15, 1966, with a summary statement and the full “Taskforce on Government Organization” report attached, War on Poverty Microfilm, WH Aides, A-M, Reel 6, microfilm shots 160–177.

  • 42. Lyndon Johnson, State of the Union, January 10, 1967, Public Papers.

  • 43. Only in the last few years has there been a sustained questioning of many of these negative policy conclusions. These newer studies are all of real importance precisely because they challenge established judgements about Community Action. See: Kent Germany, New Orleans after the Promises: Poverty, Citizenship and the Search for the Great Society (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2007); Robert Bauman, “The Black Power and Chicano Movements in the Poverty Wars in Los Angeles,” Journal of Urban History 33 (January 2007): 277–295; Noel Cazenave, Impossible Democracy: The Unlikely Success of the War on Poverty Community Action Programs (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007); Susan Youngblood Ashmore, Carry It On: The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, 1964–1972 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2008); and Guian McKee, The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

  • 44. National Association for State Community Services Programs, Community Services Block Grant Annual Report, Analysis and State-level Data (Washington, DC: NASCSP, 2014), 43–46.

  • 45. Ibid.

  • 46. See: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families.

  • 47. National Association of Community Action Agencies, Community Action Partnership.

  • 48. Ibid.

  • 49. Marvin Olasky, Compassionate Conservatism: What It Is, What it Does, and How It Can Transform America (New York: Free Press, 2000), 6–7.

  • 50. Ibid., 2.

  • 51. George W. Bush, “The Duty of Hope,” July 22, 1999, in Olasky, Compassionate Conservatism, Appendix B, 219.

  • 52. Ibid., 218.

  • 53. New York Times, “Republicans Stalk a Slogan, Hunting for Themselves,” June 20, 1999, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

  • 54. George W. Bush, Remarks on Compassionate Conservatism in San Jose, California, April 30, 2002, Public Papers.

  • 55. Lester M. Salamon, Partners in Public Service: Government-Nonprofit Relations in the Modern Welfare State (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). See also Peter D. Hall’s “The Welfare State and the Careers of Public and Private Institutions since 1945,” in Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History, ed. Lawrence J. Friedman and Mark D. McGarvie (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 380–381.

  • 56. For details of the growth in the grants-in-aid system see Ben Canada’s Federal Grants to State and Local Government: A Brief History, The Library of Congress, Report for Congress, Order Code RL30705.

  • 57. S. Pettijohn, “Federal Government Contracts and Grants for Nonprofits,” Urban Institute Washington DC, 2013, 1.

  • 58. J. McGinnis et al., Building Public Services through the Nonprofit Sector: Exploring the Risks of Rapid, Government Funded Growth in Human Service Organizations, American University School of Public Affairs Research Paper No. 2014-0010, 2014, 1.

  • 59. Hall, “The Welfare State and the Careers of Public and Private Institutions since 1945.”

  • 60. Gøsta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 27.

  • 61. Ibid.

  • 62. See: A. Hicks and L. Kenworthy, “Varieties of Welfare Capitalism,” Socio-Economic Review 1.1 (2003): 27–61; and Asian Development Bank, The Social Protection Index Assessing Results for Asia and the Pacific, ADB, 2013.

  • 63. OECD, “Social Expenditure Update (November 2014),” OECD Social Expenditure database.

  • 64. Jeremy Horpedahl and Harrison Searles, “The Tax Exemption of Employer-Provided Health Insurance,” Mercatus on Policy, July 2013, George Mason University, 3.

  • 65. M. Rae et al., “Tax Subsidies for Private Health Insurance,” KFF, October 2014 Issue Brief. Federal budget numbers are from CBO (2014), “The Federal Budget in 2013: An Infographic,” April 18, 2014.

  • 66. OECD, Net total social expenditure, % of GDP, OECD Stat.

  • 67. Ibid.

  • 68. OECD, Public social expenditure, % of GDP, OECD Stat.

  • 69. Jacob Hacker, The Divided Welfare State The Battle over Public and Private Social Benefits in the United States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

  • 70. See Edwin Amenta and Theda Skocpol, “Redefining the New Deal: World War II and the Development of Social Provision in the United States,” in Weir et al., The Politics of Social Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

  • 71. See, for example, Arnold Heidenhammer, Hugh Heclo, and Carolyn Teich Adams, Comparative Public Policy: The Politics of Social Choice in America, Europe, and Japan, (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1990); Meg Jacobs and Julian E. Zelizer, “The Democratic Experiment—New Directions in American Political History,” in The Democratic Experiment—New Directions in American Political History, ed. Meg Jacobs, William J. Novak, and Julian E. Zelizer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 1–19; and Julian E. Zelizer, “Clio’s Lost Tribe: Public Policy History since 1978,” Journal of Policy History 12.3 (2000): 369–394. Julian E. Zelizer, “Beyond the Presidential Synthesis: Reordering Political Time,” in A Companion to Post-1945 America, ed. Jean-Christophe Agnew and Roy Rosenzweig (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 346–359; Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions (Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980) (first published 1979); Stephen Skowronek, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877–1920 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997) (first published 1982); Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds; Hicks and Kenworthy, “Varieties of Welfare Capitalism”; Trattner, From Poor Law; and Edward Berkowitz, America’s Welfare State (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

  • 72. See Germany, After the Promises; Bauman, Black Power and Chicano; Cazenave, Impossible Democracy; Ashmore, Carry It On; and McKee, The Problem of Jobs.

  • 73. See Robert Korstad and James Leloudis, To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Thomas Kiffmeyer, Reformers to Radicals: The Appalachian Volunteers and the War on Poverty (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008); Greta de Jong, A Different Day: African American Struggles for Justice in Rural Louisiana, 1900–1970 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); William Clayson, Freedom Is Not Enough: The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010); Françoise N. Hamlin, Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); and Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, eds., The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964–1980 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011).

  • 74. Papers of Bertrand Harding; LBJ, Papers, Confidential File, WE MC; Files of Marvin Watson; Files of Bill Moyers; Files of Frederick Panzer; Files of Harry McPherson; Files of Henry H. Wilson; Files of Charles H. Roche; Papers of Alfred H. Corbett; Papers of Bernard L. Boutin; LBJ Papers, Task Force Reports; Confidential Files, Agency Reports, OEO; Cabinet Papers; Legislative Background, Economic Opportunity Act.

  • 75. Oral history interviews of key players in the War on Poverty and OEO housed at the Miller Center online collections include: Don Baker; John A. Baker; Ted Berry; Horace Busby; Edgar and Jean Cahn; William Cannon; Douglass Cater; Anthony Celebrezze; Jack T. Conway; James Gaither; Ronald Goldfarb; Kermit Gordon; Edith Green; Bertrand Harding; Ben W. Heinemann; Walter Heller; Harold W. Horowitz; Hubert Humphrey; Herbert Kramer; Frank Mankiewicz; Harry McPherson; Lawrence O’Brien; Ann Oppenheimer Hamilton; Robert C. Perrin; Albert Quie; Joseph Rauh; Norbert Schlei; Charles Schultze; Jule M. Sugarman; James Sundquist; Eric Tolmach; Jack Valenti; and Adam Yarmolinsky.