The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later

January 8, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the “start” of the War on Poverty.  On that date in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the proposed legislation in his State of the Union address as a means to help lower the national poverty rate, which stood at around 19% at that time.

LBJ visits with Tom Fletcher

In April of 1964, President Johnson famously visited the Appalachian town of Inez, Kentucky and personally visited with Tom Fletcher, a coal miner who had been out of work for nearly 2 years and was the father of 8 children.

The proposal led to the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which in turn led the the creation of the Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and the Community Action Program.  The War on Poverty was also responsible for the creation of such federal programs as the Social Security Act of 1965, which created Medicare and Medicaid, the Foodstamp Act of 1964, and the Head Start program.

In the 50 years since the legislation was introduced, opinions have varied on how successful the War on Poverty has been, particularly in the Appalachian region.  Many of the places President Johnson visited in his tour of poverty stricken areas continue to struggle, with many of the residents still relying on some form of government assistance just to survive.

In a January 1964 story by LIFE Magazine titled “The Valley of Poverty”, the magazine stated of Appalachia:

President Johnson, who has declared “unconditional war on poverty in America,” has singled out Appalachia as a major target. . . . Appalachia stretches from northern Alabama to southern Pennsylvania, and the same disaster that struck eastern Kentucky hit the whole region — the collapse of the coal industry 20 years ago, which left Appalachia a vast junkyard. It was no use for the jobless miners to try farming — strip mining has wrecked much of the land and, in any case, the miners had lost contact with the soil generations ago. . . . Unless the grim chain [of unemployment and lack of education] can be broken, a second generation coming of age in Appalachia will fall into the same dismal life — a life that protects them from starvation but deprives them of self-respect and hope.

Many ideas and many dollars have since been directed to the Appalachian region in the hopes of finding a solution to a lingering problem.  There are certainly success stories to be told, but for a great many people of this region, a solution still seems to be out of reach.

Many of the conditions and circumstances LIFE wrote about 50 years ago seem relevant and applicable today.  It is a problem that will not likely be solved with one solution.  Instead, the recovery and revitalization of the Appalachian region likely will begin with a collection of good ideas and good people to see them through.

Here, on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, we have gathered a collection of articles and opinions on the successes and failures of this continuing battle.

War on Poverty: Portraits From an Appalachian Battleground, 1964 Time/LIFE Story

NPR Looks at the War on Poverty in Martin County, KY

Paul Krugman/NYT Editorial looks at the War on Poverty

Fifty Years of Night (A collection of articles by the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky)

The War on Poverty: Then and Now (An essay by the Center for American Progress)

How we Won – and Lost – the War on Poverty, in 6 Charts (Mother Jones)

War on Poverty 50 Years Later (

The War on Poverty: A Timeline (Education Week)


The LBJ Poverty Tours

The 1964 State of the Union Address