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The missing link in the War on Poverty

To better help the urban poor, government must address not just their deprivation but also their segregation.



Nine minutes into his State of the Union address, on January 8, 1964—50 years ago last week—Lyndon Johnson brought up a neglected topic.

"Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope—some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity."

In his next sentence, LBJ declared an "unconditional war on poverty in America."

Despite the nation's growing affluence at the time, about a quarter of Americans were still poor, Michael Harrington wrote in his 1962 book, The Other America, which had put poverty on the presidential agenda. John F. Kennedy read a long New Yorker review of the book, and shortly before his death had told his aides he wanted to mount an antipoverty effort. In the seven weeks between his assassination, in November 1963, and LBJ's State of the Union address, Johnson had decided to make fighting poverty a top priority.

Harrington stressed in The Other America that the problem of poverty was compounded by growing economic segregation. "If the middle class never did like ugliness and poverty, it was at least aware of them," he wrote. "'Across the tracks' was not a very long way to go. . . . Now the American city has been transformed. The poor still inhabit the miserable housing in the central area, but they are increasingly isolated from contact with, or sight of, anybody else. . . . Living out in the suburbs, it is easy to assume that ours is, indeed, an affluent society."

The national poverty rate declined markedly in the War on Poverty's early years, from 19 percent in 1964 to 11 percent in 1973. Then it flattened, and it has slowly risen since, to 15 percent by 2010. The leading beneficiaries of the programs spawned by the war were the elderly, with the creation of Medicare in 1965 keeping many out of poverty. Poverty among seniors has declined from 28.5 percent in 1966 to 9.1 percent in 2012.

Poor blacks in those "central areas" have not made similar gains. In Chicago in 1960, 29.7 percent of nonwhite families were living in poverty; as of 2007-2011, 27.4 percent of black Chicago families were in poverty. (Among white families in Chicago, the current poverty rate is 5.3 percent.)

The lack of success in eradicating urban poverty isn't surprising. The effort in cities never was well funded.

But as Harrington had pointed out, the poverty problem was not only deprivation but also separation. That separation was especially pronounced in cities, where the concentration of poverty meant children were growing up amid violence and joblessness, with few positive role models. War on Poverty programs tried to treat the deprivation without addressing the separation.

Politically, this was understandable. LBJ and other government leaders knew that Americans were more interested in helping the poor than living near them.

It took years of unremitting effort—and, ultimately, Johnson's consummate legislative skill—to finally pass, in 1964, a Civil Rights measure ending segregation by law, as it had existed in the south. But de facto segregation in the north proved an unbeatable foe. A Fair Housing Act finally passed in 1968, in the wake of the rioting that followed Martin Luther King's assassination, but it had been stripped of key enforcement provisions, and did little to reduce segregation. And so the isolation of poor minorities, blacks in particular, continued in Chicago—and in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Cleveland, and other cities. And it continues still today.

A chief tenet of the War on Poverty was that the poor themselves knew best what the poor needed—and that therefore, money for "community action" antipoverty programs should go directly to poor neighborhoods, not be funneled to them through the mayors of their cities. That got the war off on the wrong foot in Chicago.

Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley, who believed local control meant mayoral control, blocked the incursion of the federal antipoverty agencies whenever he could. And that was often. City officials "do not permit any type of community organization," an official in the federal Office of Economic Opportunity complained in a note to the head of the agency in 1966, an anecdote related by Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land, his book about the mid-20th-century black migration from the south to Chicago. In 1967, a White House aide who spent three days in Chicago reported that "the poverty program does not reach the people and is controlled by the city government." When the Department of Health, Education and Welfare made a grant to Martin Luther King to run an adult literacy program here, Daley called the White House and had it rescinded.

Washington officials ultimately turned to a Woodlawn group not controlled by Daley: the Blackstone Rangers street gang. The Rangers, and their leader, Jeff Fort, were getting involved in community organizing, but they also remained involved in crime. In 1967, the OEO gave the Rangers and their rivals, the Disciples, $927,000 of antipoverty funds to run a job-training program in Woodlawn supervised by the community group the Woodlawn Organization.

More time was spent on gang-related business in the program's training centers than on job training. Few participants were actually placed in jobs. Fort and another Rangers leader were soon arrested on murder charges, and three other Rangers who worked in the training centers were arrested for rape. Two students in the program were shot, one fatally, by an instructor. In the spring of 1968, OEO shut the program down. "In the history of the OEO, there was no grant that was as complete a failure," Lemann observed in The Promised Land. After this debacle, Lemann went on, "Daley no longer had much trouble with challenges, from the OEO or anybody else, to his absolute control over the antipoverty programs in Chicago."

Even without the fiasco in Woodlawn, however, the War on Poverty was ill-fated in Chicago, as in other cities, because of the unwillingness to address racial segregation. Government officials had aided and abetted that segregation for decades—with restrictive covenants that forbade property owners from renting or selling to blacks, urban renewal programs that further isolated minorities, public housing confined to ghettos, and vast expenditures on highways and infrastructure that promoted sprawl and white flight. When officials surveyed the damage done to the poor by segregation, though, they maintained that government could do nothing to improve things because segregation was merely the result of personal choices.

The "community action" model of the war's first few years was soon replaced with Model Cities—a similar effort, except mayors were granted more control. Later there were Community Development Block Grants, and Urban Development Action Grants, and Enterprise Zones.

The theory behind these efforts has been that economic development of poor neighborhoods will create jobs in those communities, which will lift residents out of poverty. But even with tax breaks and other government incentives, businesses tend not to thrive in poor, high-crime areas. Residents who do find work usually find it elsewhere, and are eager to move to safer neighborhoods as soon as they're able.

In 1994, 30 years into the War on Poverty, Lemann wrote in the New York Times: "For three decades, Administration after Administration has pondered the ghettos and then settled on the idea of trying to revitalize them economically—even though there is almost no evidence that this can work."

The community development programs neatly avoided "what is perhaps the most perilous of all issues for elected officials—racial integration," Lemann observed. Advocates of integration maintain that community development efforts need to be combined with efforts to deconcentrate urban poverty. In metro Chicago, this would mean public officials taking steps to ensure that affordable housing is available not only throughout Chicago but throughout its suburbs; that fair housing laws are enforced; and that supportive programs are offered to residents of poor neighborhoods who are interested in moving.

But political leaders have continued to avoid even talking about segregation in the years since. In Chicago's last mayoral election, in 2011, none of the candidates offered a plan for addressing segregation. When I asked Rahm Emanuel during the campaign if he had any ideas for countering segregation, he responded with the standard community development ideas: "Safe streets, strong schools, and good-paying jobs throughout the city with the goal of lifting all neighborhoods up."

"For all that has changed in the 50 years since President Johnson dedicated us to this economic and moral mission, one constant of our character has not: we are one nation and one people, and we rise or fall together." —President Obama, speaking last week about the anniversary of the War on Poverty

It's not as if segregation has gone away in Chicago since the War on Poverty started. The African-American population has thinned, but it's still largely isolated. In 1960, 69 percent of the city's black residents lived in community areas on the south and west sides whose total population was 94 percent black; today, 63 percent of Chicago's African-Americans live in community areas whose total population is 95 percent black. These neighborhoods have the city's highest rates of poverty, as well as the violence, unemployment, and failing schools that characterize neighborhoods where poverty is concentrated. The city's public school enrollment is 86 percent Hispanic and African-American and 85 percent low-income.

Though other presidents have steered clear of the topic of de facto segregation, Johnson spoke about it. "The great majority of Negro Americans . . . still, as we meet here tonight, are another nation," he said in a commencement address at Howard University in 1965. "Despite the court orders and the laws, despite the legislative victories and the speeches, for them, the walls are rising and the gulf is widening."

"Men are shaped by their world," Johnson continued. "When it is a world of decay, ringed by an invisible wall . . . it can cripple the youth and it can desolate the men."

Kiara Molina and other members of the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy listen as President Obama speaks about poverty during an event at the White House on  January 9. - BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
  • Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
  • Kiara Molina and other members of the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy listen as President Obama speaks about poverty during an event at the White House on January 9.

President Obama lately has been speaking more forcefully about "economic inequality," and even at times about poverty, a word he studiously avoided in his first term. But might he ever talk about the role of segregation? That's probably too much to expect.

Obama said last week about the War on Poverty: "We are a country that keeps the promises we've made. And in a 21st century economy, we will make sure that as America grows stronger, this recovery leaves no one behind. Because for all that has changed in the 50 years since President Johnson dedicated us to this economic and moral mission, one constant of our character has not: we are one nation and one people, and we rise or fall together."

That, however, simply hasn't been true. Segregation continues to neatly sever the fates of residents of Winnetka and Lake Forest from those in Englewood and North Lawndale. And as long as it persists in metro areas, the rich will be able to continue to rise as the poor continue to founder.

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