News Release

“How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty”


The “war on poverty” was launched 50 years ago this week in Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address [PDF, video]; also see excerpt of video from this 1965 speech on voting rights which also addresses racism and the war on poverty.

JILL QUADAGNO, jquadagno at
Author of several books on social policy including The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty, Quadagno said today: “Several factors stymied efforts to end poverty in the U.S. The heart of the Economic Opportunity Act was the effort to bring about social change through community action programs. Yet across the nation – from the deep South to New Jersey – community action programs became entangled in the civil rights movement, creating a backlash that was ultimately their undoing. Job training programs, too, began as an effort to provide the poor with the skills to earn a decent wage. In practice, however, young black women received training that would prepare them to be domestic servants and homemakers. Young black men gained valuable training in the skilled trades but came into conflict with the unions that wanted to maintain control over hiring. Once again, then, the goal to end poverty through jobs became enmeshed in conflict over racial discrimination.

“A guaranteed national income, or ‘negative income tax’ — which would now be regarded as unspeakably radical — was actually backed by the Nixon administration and had broad support, but a bizarre coalition of southern white Democrats, religious groups and welfare rights advocates (who thought it didn’t go far enough) defeated the proposal.

“We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that key parts of the war on poverty – the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 — have been critical for reducing poverty. Until then, poor people and older people had no way of ensuring access to health care.

“We do see some continued racial dynamics around the Affordable Care Act of 2010. The Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional for the states, and as states make their decision, it is not only partisan politics that determines the choice, but also the degree of negative racial sentiment within the state.” Quadagno holds the Mildred and Claude Pepper Eminent Scholar Chair in Social Gerontology at Florida State University.