The American War on Poverty

When advocating for social justice, there is little more that stings than the remains of a broken promise. Four years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood in front of our nation and declared an “unconditional” war on poverty in his State of the Union Address, saying, “Our objective is total victory” (Shore). Since then, the optimism surrounding this vow has faded. Economic and social conditions of central cities have declined, while their inner-ghetto areas have become zones of calamity. Black residents are not only living in poverty but also with high levels of racial discrimination and violence. Although the extent of urban decline was evident then in abandonment and crime, there was still hope that the productivity of the US economy, along with increasing advances of the Civil Rights movement, could bring about positive change in the lives of all poor persons—not just the white majority. According to the 1965 “Peace Without Conquest” address, however, which reads that “We are [in Vietnam] to strengthen world order” (Proctor 111), the Johnson administration’s objective no longer seems to be creating a Great Society. With a president who turns his back to fight a war the country cannot win and a party that refuses to hear the voices of the marginalized, there is no choice left but to riot.

America has had a liberal democratic government for most of this decade, and yet the voices of those who oppose the Vietnam War have, until now, gone unheard. When President Johnson launched his War on Poverty, a great deal of social reform programs followed. These included the White House’s Office of Economic Opportunity, designed to create community-based work-study programs; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which would provide equal opportnities in school for all children and parents; the Model Cities Program, which would provide federal money to communities in need; and many others, including Medicare, Job Corps, VISTA, and Food Stamps (Matthews). However, the resolution Johnson passed shortly after the Gulf of Tonkin incident has given him unlimited, unconstitutional power to “repel any armed attack against [US] forces” (“Tonkin Gulf Resolution”).

This includes commencing Operation Rolling Thunder against North Vietnam (Germany) and using federal funds initially planned to be used for these War on Poverty programs to cover high war expenses instead. This ability to declare war is an act that goes deliberately against Congress, and yet they are the institution which passed it. The political system was not always corrupt, however. Before his assassination in June, former Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy spoke to University of Kansas students about his disagreement with Johnson’s bombing campaign. He began with a quote from alumnus William Allen White: “If our colleges and universities do not breed men…who attack life with all the youthful vision and vigor, then there is something wrong…the more riots…the better the world for tomorrow” (Proctor 68). He additionally remarked on the rising poverty levels, having seen minority groups “starving” with “no jobs” and “little hope for the future” despite the fact our country has a “Gross National Product…over $800 billion dollars” (Proctor 69). It is no mystery where most of this money is going. Despite poverty being a pressing issue within US borders, the Johnson administration has been dispersing much of the national budget into military expansion in third world countries. In honor of the last true politician Robert Kennedy’s legacy, this must be stopped.

Urban decay issues are no longer of interest to policy makers, which means that racism continues to thrive in our society. For over fifty years, African-Americans have been migrating north in search of work that a rural Jim Crow south would not provide only to find themselves living within segregated pockets of poverty. It is no surprise, then, that the Kerner Report’s top reason for urban riot increase between 1964 and 1967 is the “racial attitude and behavior of white Americans toward black Americans” (Proctor 84). To solve this problem, the report reads, white America must open suburban areas—thereby “[encouraging] integration of substantial numbers of [blacks]…outside the ghetto” (Proctor 88)—and “remove artificial barriers to employment and promotion” (Proctor 89). Meanwhile, there has been little progress toward any one of these goals.

Instead, some delegates within the Democratic party have begun siding with Mayor Daley and Republican candidate Richard Nixon’s policy on “law and order,” which “calls for tens of millions of additional dollars for criminal courts, local police, criminal rehabilitation, and the FBI” (Proctor 25). This is more unauthorized military investment, and, in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, this is more white supremacy over unarmed blacks. Nonviolent protest is no longer effective. The same method that made our president sign the Civil Rights Act four years ago causes blacks to get killed in the street now. One who does not raise their voice against the persistence of racism cannot expect to raise their voice against the persistence of urban poverty, either. Like the communities in Watts, Newark, and Detroit, we must instead stengthen our defence and equip ourselves with the necessary weapons to make our message loud and clear.

The morning after Marquette Fryer’s arrest, leaders of the Watts community and the NAACP held a meeting at a church with police accompaniment in an attempt to calm the crowd down. However, in the end, even they could not deny the “barrage” of evidence surrounding “police and government treatment of black citizens in recent history” (“Watts Riots”). If our country is truly the “[assurer]” of “the survival and success of liberty” that former president John F. Kennedy declares it to be (“JFK and Communism”), we can realign our focus from foreign containment to racial justice and eradicating poverty on American soil.

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