Analyzing the War on Poverty, 50 Years On

March 2, 2014

Students read President Johnson's March 1964 speech to Congress outlining the War on Poverty and, in small groups, use a graphic organizer to explore how values of justice and equity were translated into policies and programs. They consider: What beliefs led to declaring a war on poverty? And what actions did the President propose to fight that war?   

In his January, 1964 State of the Union Address, President Lyndon Johnson announced a War on Poverty, vowing to end poverty once and for all by getting to its root causes. In a follow-up speech on March 16, Johnson laid out his proposal for how to fight the War on Poverty.
Fifty years later, in 2014, many people are looking back on the War on Poverty and considering  what we might learn from this major federal initiative.  
In this lesson, students use Johnson's March 16 speech as a case study to explore how values of justice and equity were translated into policies and programs. Students analyze the primary source to explore the nuts and bolts of how to bring about change. They consider: What beliefs led to declaring a war on poverty? And what actions did the President propose taking to fight that war?


  • to read and understand a primary source
  • to use a graphic organizer to analyze a primary source
  • to identify the goals of the War on Poverty
  • to connect the goals of the War on Poverty to the programs proposed to reach those goals
  • to articulate the beliefs that shaped the War on Poverty, using as evidence its goals and programs
  • to consider their own views about the War on Poverty


President Johnson's speech.  You can find the entire speech here; or you can have students read a shortened version of it here.
A graphic organizer for students to complete, here.


Write the phrase "War on Poverty" on the board or on chart paper. Ask students what comes to mind when they think about the phrase. Ask them to share their thoughts, listing them under the phrase "War on Poverty." Explain that in this lesson, students will be learning about the War on Poverty.
Share the following with students:
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson vowed to end poverty in the United States with a "War on Poverty." This bold effort to end the injustice of poverty was Johnson's response to many years of organizing by those in the Civil Rights Movement and others for a stronger social safety net and more equality in the United States.
But figuring out the nuts and bolts of how to end poverty and create a more equitable society is less poetic and a lot harder than asserting the importance of doing so. How exactly do you carry out a "War on Poverty"? How do you get from here to there?
In a speech to Congress on March 16, 1964, Johnson laid out his plan.

Small Group Activity: Graphic organizer

Have students read the President's speech silently. Encourage them to underline, highlight, and/or make notes in the margins of the speech to help them understand and remember what they are reading.
You can find the speech here; or you can have students read a shortened version of it here.
Have students count off by fours. Have all the ones sit together, the twos, and so on. If you have a large class, you can divide each of the four groups in half. The aim is to have groups with three to four students in them. Have students use a graphic organizer as a tool to help them analyze the article. They will be looking for three things:
1. What were the goals of the War on Poverty?
2. How did Johnson plan to reach those goals?
3. What attitudes about poverty shaped the goals and strategies?
You can either give each group a copy of the graphic organizer, or you can have each group design their own.
If you use the organizer here, students can use these guidelines to help them.
1.  Start at the bottom:  What are the five goals of the War on Poverty? Write one in each box.
2.  Move to the middle row: What programs is Johnson proposing to reach those goals?
3.  Finally, move to the top box: What are the attitudes about poverty and people who live in poverty on which Johnson's proposals are based?
Once the groups have completed their graphic organizer, ask them to post their sheets at the front of the room.  Invite students to compare what the different groups came up with.

Opinion Continuum

Post two signs in opposite corners of the room. One sign says ALIGNS; the other says DOES NOT ALIGN.
Explain that you are going to read some sentences aloud. Each sentence expresses an opinion about what causes poverty or how to address the problem of poverty. After you read each sentence, have students think about whether or not the statement reflects the belief system that shaped the War on Poverty. If it does reflect the belief system, students will stand in the "Aligns" section of the room. If it does not reflect that belief system, they will stand in the "Does not align" section. 
Read each statement and give students a chance to move to the appropriate part of the room. After each statement, give students time to talk with the other students in their corner about why they believe the statement either agrees or conflicts with the War on Poverty. Then have a volunteer share the group's thinking with the class.
The statements are:

  • Poverty is caused by low wages and lack of jobs.
  • Poverty is a symptom of deeper problems, like fatherlessness and community breakdown.
  • Poverty is caused by bad attitudes and lifestyles.
  • People who live in poverty don't take responsibility for themselves.
  • There are many barriers that make it difficult to rise out of poverty.
  • The government has a responsibility to help people who are living in poverty.


Writing Assignment

Have each student choose one of the statements to explore in more depth. Ask them to write a one page essay that addresses two questions:

1. Based on what you have learned, how would a supporter of the War on Poverty respond to the statement?
2.  Do you agree with the statement yourself? Why or why not?


Ask students to say one word they would use to describe the War on Poverty, based on all they have learned.

Special Message to the Congress Proposing a Nationwide War on the Sources of Poverty

March 16, 1964
To the Congress of the United States:
We are citizens of the richest and most fortunate nation in the history of the world...
... we have never lost sight of our goal: an America in which every citizen shares all the opportunities of his society, in which every man has a chance to advance his welfare to the limit of his capacities. We have come a long way toward this goal. We still have a long way to go. The distance which remains is the measure of the great unfinished work of our society.
To finish that work I have called for a national war on poverty. Our objective: total victory. There are millions of Americans--one fifth of our people--who have not shared in the abundance which has been granted to most of us, and on whom the gates of opportunity have been closed. What does this poverty mean to those who endure it? It means a daily struggle to secure the necessities for even a meager existence. It means that the abundance, the comforts, the opportunities they see all around them are beyond their grasp. 

Worst of all, it means hopelessness for the young. The young man or woman who grows up without a decent education, in a broken home, in a hostile and squalid environment, in ill health or in the face of racial injustice-that young man or woman is often trapped in a life of poverty. He does not have the skills demanded by a complex society. He does not know how to acquire those skills. He faces a mounting sense of despair which drains initiative and ambition and energy.

Our tax cut will create millions of new jobs--new exits from poverty. But we must also strike down all the barriers which keep many from using those exits.The war on poverty is not a struggle simply to support people, to make them dependent on the generosity of others.

It is a struggle to give people a chance.  It is an effort to allow them to develop and use their capacities, as we have been allowed to develop and use ours, so that they can share, as others share, in the promise of this nation.

We do this, first of all, because it is right that we should...
We do it also because helping some will increase the prosperity of all.  Our fight against poverty will be an investment in the most valuable of our resources--the skills and strength of our people. And in the future, as in the past, this investment will return its cost many fold to our entire economy... 

Our history has proved that each time we broaden the base of abundance, giving more people the chance to produce and consume, we create new industry, higher production, increased earnings and better income for all. Giving new opportunity to those who have little will enrich the lives of all the rest. 

Because it is right, because it is wise, and because, for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty, I submit, for the consideration of the Congress and the country, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.
The Act does not merely expand old programs or improve what is already being done. It charts a new course. It strikes at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty...
This Act provides five basic opportunities.

It will give almost half a million underprivileged young Americans the opportunity to develop skills, continue education, and find useful work.

It will give every American community the opportunity to develop a comprehensive plan to fight its own poverty--and help them to carry out their plans.

It will give dedicated Americans the opportunity to enlist as volunteers in the war against poverty.

It will give many workers and farmers the opportunity to break through particular barriers which bar their escape from poverty.

It will give the entire nation the opportunity for a concerted attack on poverty through the establishment, under my direction, of the Office of Economic Opportunity, a national headquarters for the war against poverty.
This is how we propose to create these opportunities.
First we will give high priority to helping young Americans who lack skills, who have not completed their education or who cannot complete it because they are too poor. The years of high school and college age are the most critical stage of a young person's life. If they are not helped then, many will be condemned to a life of poverty which they, in turn, will pass on to their children.

I therefore recommend the creation of a Job Corps, a Work-Training Program, and a Work Study Program.  A new national Job Corps will build toward an enlistment of 100,000 young men. They will be drawn from those whose background, health and education make them least fit for useful work. Those who volunteer will enter more than 100 Camps and Centers around the country. Half of these young men will work, in the first year, on special conservation projects to give them education, useful work experience and to enrich the natural resources of the country. Half of these young men will receive, in the first year, a blend of training, basic education and work experience in Job Training Centers. These are not simply camps for the underprivileged. They are new educational institutions, comparable in innovation to the land grant colleges. Those who enter them will emerge better qualified to play a productive role in American society.
A new national Work-Training Program operated by the Department of Labor will provide work and training for 200,000 American men and women between the ages of 16 and 21. This will be developed through state and local governments and non-profit agencies. Hundreds of thousands of young Americans badly need the experience, the income, and the sense of purpose which useful full or part-time work can bring. For them such work may mean the difference between finishing school or dropping out. Vital community activities from hospitals and playgrounds to libraries and settlement houses are suffering because there are not enough people to staff them.  We are simply bringing these needs together.
A new national Work-Study Program operated by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare will provide federal funds for part-time jobs for 140,000 young Americans who do not go to college because they cannot afford it... They and the country will be richer for it.
Second, through a new Community Action program we intend to strike at poverty at its source--in the streets of our cities and on the farms of our countryside among the very young and the impoverished old. This program asks men and women throughout the country to prepare long-range plans for the attack on poverty in their own local communities. These are not plans prepared in Washington and imposed upon hundreds of different situations. They are based on the fact that local citizens best understand their own problems, and know best how to deal with those problems...These plans will be local plans striking at the many untilled needs which underlie poverty in each community, not just one or two... And when these plans are approved by the Office of Economic Opportunity, the federal government will finance up to 90% of the additional cost for the first two years. ...
Third, I ask for the authority to recruit and train skilled volunteers for the war against poverty. Thousands of Americans have volunteered to serve the needs of other lands. Thousands more want the chance to serve the needs of their own land. They should have that chance. Among older people who have retired, as well as among the young, among women as well as men, there are many Americans who are ready to enlist in our war against poverty. They have skills and dedication. They are badly needed. If the State requests them, if the community needs and will use them, we will recruit and train them and give them the chance to serve.
Fourth, we intend to create new opportunities for certain hard-hit groups to break out of the pattern of poverty. Through a new program of loans and guarantees we can provide incentives to those who will employ the unemployed. Through programs of work and retraining for unemployed fathers and mothers we can help them support their families in dignity while preparing themselves for new work. Through funds to purchase needed land, organize cooperatives, and create new and adequate family farms we can help those whose life on the land has been a struggle without hope.
Fifth, I do not intend that the war against poverty become a series of uncoordinated and unrelated efforts--that it perish for lack of leadership and direction. Therefore this bill creates, in the Executive Office of the President, a new Office of Economic Opportunity...
What you are being asked to consider is not a simple or an easy program. But poverty is not a simple or an easy enemy. It cannot be driven from the land by a single attack on a single front. Were this so we would have conquered poverty long ago. Nor can it be conquered by government alone. For decades American labor and American business, private institutions and private individuals have been engaged in strengthening our economy and offering new opportunity to those in need. We need their help, their support, and their full participation.

Through this program we offer new incentives and new opportunities for cooperation, so that all the energy of our nation, not merely the efforts of government, can be brought to bear on our common enemy.
Today, for the first time in our history, we have the power to strike away the barriers to full participation in our society. Having the power, we have the duty. The Congress is charged by the Constitution to "provide . . . for the general welfare of the United States." Our present abundance is a measure of its success in fulfilling that duty. Now Congress is being asked to extend that welfare to all our people.
The President of the United States is President of all the people in every section of the country. But this office also holds a special responsibility to the distressed and disinherited, the hungry and the hopeless of this abundant nation. It is in pursuit of that special responsibility that I submit this Message to you today. The new program I propose is within our means. Its cost of 970 million dollars is 1 percent of our national budget--and every dollar I am requesting for this program is already included in the budget I sent to Congress in January. But we cannot measure its importance by its cost. For it charts an entirely new course of hope for our people.
We are fully aware that this program will not eliminate all the poverty in America in a few months or a few years. Poverty is deeply rooted and its causes are many. But this program will show the way to new opportunities for millions of our fellow citizens. It will provide a lever with which we can begin to open the door to our prosperity for those who have been kept outside...

And this program is much more than a beginning. Rather it is a commitment. It is a total commitment by this President, and this Congress, and this nation, to pursue victory over the most ancient of mankind's enemies. On many historic occasions the President has requested from Congress the authority to move against forces which were endangering the well-being of our country. This is such an occasion...