The Presidents and the Poor

America Battles Poverty, 1964-2017

Lawrence J. McAndrews

Declaring a War on Poverty in 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson proclaimed: “We shall not rest until that war is won.” Since then, nine presidents have come and gone, each taking up the campaign in his own way—but the poor are still here. While all of these presidents have helped produce meaningful changes in the lives of the nations underclass, their setbacks have been at least as notable as their successes. The Presidents and the Poor asks why. This book is the first thorough study of the policies and politics of the presidents from Johnson to Barack Obama—what they did right and how they went wrong—in over half a century of fighting poverty.

Many factors conspired to frustrate Democratic efforts to escalate Johnson’s War on Poverty and Republican attempts to unravel it: the rivalry of the two-party system; the frequency of congressional elections; the fluctuations of the economy; the demands of foreign policy; the inertia of the federal bureaucracy; the tensions among cities, states, and Washington, DC; and the priorities of the presidents, the press, and the public. Examining how each president tried to alleviate the suffering of the poor—including what resources he marshaled for which programs, policies, legal strategies, and political maneuvers—Lawrence J. McAndrews details how and why none of the presidents were able to surmount the enormous socioeconomic, political, and cultural barriers to eradicating poverty. Comprehensive and engaging, rich in primary research, and sobering in its conclusions, his book brings much-needed attention and clarity to an enduring yet too often neglected problem.

“Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty, and each subsequent president in his own way has tried to address the issue. McAndrews examines these efforts thoroughly and assesses their successes and failures. This book comprehensively explores one of America’s most persistent social policy concerns.”

—David Zarefsky, author of President Johnson’s War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History

“Lawrence McAndrews provides a remarkable and timely synthesis of how presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama confronted the problem of poverty in the United States. His sweeping study shows both the continuities and discontinuities across administrations and between parties and demonstrates presidents’ consistent inability to come to grips with the realities of the issue. The Presidents and the Poor provides valuable insight and understanding for scholars and students alike.”

—Guian A. McKee, author of The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia

About the Author

Lawrence J. McAndrews is visiting professor of history at the University of Hong Kong. His books include What They Wished For: American Catholics and American Presidents, 1960–2004 and The Era of Education: The Presidents and the Schools, 1965–2001.