Caro and the War on Poverty
Despite its rhetorical overkill and its repetitions, Caro’s book on the relation of the Kennedys to Johnson and the transition of power from one to the other, would be a good read if its explanations of what happened in history made some sense. I know that is like saying that if I had ham, I would have a ham and egg sandwich, if I had eggs, but that is the way it is: you read along with the story that is being told and suspend what you know about the part of the story that has not been told.
That is perfectly clear in the section on the passage of the Equal Accommodations Act of 1964. A lot is told about the nagging and other pressures Johnson applied so that his tax and his budget bills would pass early enough so that he still had time in the congressional session to get his civil rights bill through. A lot is made about the way he courted Harry Byrd of Virginia and how the Kennedy people had been oblivious to the way the Southern chairmen of committees (there were no chairwomen, and so the term “chair” or “chairperson” does not have to be adopted) were engaged in holding up bills in committee so that no civil rights bill could make it to the floor until the time when a filibuster could hold it up long enough for the session to expire. But the story, as told, does not make much sense. Was Byrd unaware that the civil rights bill that he hated would make progress if scored a victory for spending reduction? And even if Byrd was too much over the hill to know that, certainly there were Southern colleagues who were aware of that and would have mentioned it to him and held him to his deep allegiance to segregation at any cost. No, what was changing was the larger context that did not have to do with Lyndon Johnson’s mastery over the mechanics of legislation. It had to do with the sense of the country that the time had come at last for civil rights legislation, the death of the martyr Kennedy, and the high flown moral rhetoric on the part of the very sophisticated Civil Rights Movement that stated and so made available the sense that progress on racial matters was inevitable. Though you can’t demonstrate the relative importance of the how of it to the why of it, Caro does not tell the part of the story that takes place outside the Beltway (a term not then in use) and that way of shaping the narrative is perfectly alright as long as the reader remembers that part of the story. Cultural history and not just legislative history matters.
The story of the War on Poverty gets skewed in a different manner. That has to do with the after-story which it is quite understandable that Caro does not explore just as one can argue that the story of cultural change that runs parallel to Caro’s story of the political in fighting around civil rights legislation is also a story that Caro is not obliged to explore. Caro makes, in this volume, some of the obligatory references always made in a discussion of the War on Poverty: Michael Harrington’s The Other America and some Edward R. Murrow broadcasts. I think he neglects the importance of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society to the cultural history of the War on Poverty. That book claimed that the private economy was very successful while the collective purchases made by the government were not. But this, remember, is not a book about cultural history.
Anyway, this is where I came in. I remember as a first year graduate student in sociology telling a fellow student that I did not think a year of Head Start, which had been approved under Kennedy, would make up for the conditions of poverty and that created some anger because I was being callous about the condition of the poor. Something had to be done for them, didn’t it? Well, I got with the program despite my misgivings because, after all, something did have to be done for them, and this was better than nothing and sociologists from Columbia University, where I was a student, as well as elsewhere, had long pressed the idea that there were ways to intervene in the lives of juvenile delinquents and poor people so as to provide them with a leg up so that they could lead successful lives. That assistance could include staffing mentoring and education programs that provided “role models”, a term much in use at the time; it could mean job training programs and nutrition programs and well baby programs and anything else you could think of because the accumulation of these programs would have to have an impact even if any one of them did not. Wouldn’t that have to be the case?
I remember when the results of the various evaluation studies of Head Start started coming in. The programs just didn’t work, and that was also what was to be said of all the other War on Poverty programs, even those that supported nutrition for young mothers to be, which were less capable of measurement because whatever improvements you might introduce got flooded out by all the other detrimental factors in the lives of poor people. How can milk for babies make up for neglect of babies? And the neatly boxed in experience of having a year of pre-school preparation for the competition of schooling just didn’t sustain itself. By the second grade, all positive effects had washed out.
When these results were first reported in 1969, I was starting out as a teacher of sociology and hazarded a complicated excuse for why there were always negative results. There must be something cockeyed about the logic of the null hypothesis. Your instruments must be operating very well to pick up significant statistical differences between experimental and control groups when there was so much background noise in the form of non-measured variables that were having an impact on the experimentally-induced effect that might be much larger than the impact the programs were indeed making. To use a more modern metaphor, there was a lot of dark matter out there to skew the results or simply to dampen the results. Moreover, the measures were intrusive enough so that the results might be an artifact of testing practices or testing administration or number fudging. Cheating might not be equally done on both sides of the equation and so students who were performing better might seem to be performing worse and visa versa. Who knew? It was just too shocking to think that indeed all this investment was not achieving much of a payoff.
The conclusion to be drawn, we now know, is that the War on Poverty, and not just Head Start, was a failure. Poverty continues and the divide between the various classes in society is greater than it was when Johnson was President. Just how much of a setback to social progress was that failure to make the poor at least working class can be appreciated by thinking of all the movements that followed after it and that were successful. There was, of course, the Civil Rights Movement which succeeded in the years following the War on Poverty turning African Americans from being a caste into an ethnic group—which means that middle class African Americans are doing alright even if their poorer brethren are not. There was the women’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement. There was Grey Panther Power which, through raising Social Security benefits, succeeded in lifting a whole class of people, the elderly, out of poverty. There was the American Disabilities Act which made accommodations for medically disabled people. And yet poverty remains recalcitrant to change, so over determined are the causes of poverty. Women may be sleeping with the enemy, but in America sharing the same bed probably means sharing the same life style. Women are doing OK now, even if they are much underrepresented in Congress. Even Nixon’s War on Cancer has done as well as the War on Poverty in that life has indeed been extended for many cancer sufferers and some childhood cancers have come under a great deal of control.
When it dawned on all of us that class, especially when combined with race, is much more recalcitrant to change than gender, the wisest remark I heard in the Seventies was not to give up on doing something about poverty or the people of color who were so hurt by their poverty, but to think of something new to try out. And that is where I still am, even as I also recognize that the nation as a whole has given up on the poor and is hard pressed to keep its eye out for the interests of the middle class people who are squeezed between declining wages and ever increased costs for the things, such as education and medicine, that are part and parcel of a middle class life. But what must be recognized is that the failure of Johnson’s domestic program must be placed alongside his signal success in bringing fulfillment to the long sought dream of racial equality.