Chapter Fifteen:
Past Proposals Compared

A. Historical Background

Although the National Economic Security Program (NESP) presented here is apparently the first specific, comprehensive proposal for ending poverty in the United States, the concept that society should meet basic needs directly has a rich and long history. As discussed in Chapter Six, prior to the European conquest, Native Americans provided economic security to all, as did most nomadic and hunter-gatherer societies. Prior to the development of large-scale agriculture, early human societies typically met everyone's essential material needs. The development of modern civilizations undermined security for many members of the new societies. Storing crops, restricting access to these crops, the growth of cities, the accumulation of extreme wealth in the hands of a few, confiscatory taxation, and excluding many segments of the population from the means of subsistence became commonplace.

Many people resisted these new hardships and referred back to a Golden Age or Garden of Eden that provided abundance for all. Some members of the elites in these societies responded with sympathy and called for corrective measures, as reflected in Judaeo-Christian history. The early Hebrew community was obligated to allow the poor free use of all land every seven years: "And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and shalt gather in the fruit thereof; but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat." Moreover, in the fiftieth year, the Hebrews celebrated Jubilee, which included the canceling of all debts and the return of land to prior owners:

In the year of this jubilee ye shall return every man unto his possession.... The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.... And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee.
When the Hebrews violated these injunctions, prophets periodically called them to account, as did Amos:
Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail..., I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; and I will bring up sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness upon every head; and I will make it as the mourning of an only son, and the end thereof as a bitter day.
In this tradition, Jesus of Nazareth announced his ministry as follows:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
To this end, he consistently preached about the evils of accumulated wealth and instructed his followers: "When thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind." Following the teachings of Jesus, the early Church shared all their possessions and cared for the disadvantaged:
And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
A concern for meeting the basic needs of the poor has been central to Christian teachings ever since. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, peasants throughout Europe were entitled to live forever on the land where they were born. They were required to work for their feudal lords and fight for them in wars; but the lords did not own the land they governed. Rather, they held it at the pleasure of their monarch and they could not evict peasants, who passed the land on to their eldest sons upon their death. As oppressive as it was, this set of mutual legal obligations, endorsed by the Church, provided peasants with the means of basic subsistence.

With the advent of urban factories, however, the need for a mobile workforce and a surplus of workers to keep down wages led to a redefinition of property rights. As a consequence, peasants were steadily evicted from and/or allowed to leave the land of their birth. Gradually, by force, enticement, and necessity, there was a great migration to cities.

This repudiation of minimal economic security provoked furious resistance. Groups such as the Diggers in England agitated vehemently for government policies that would effectively protect the less fortunate. But it was in France that the call for the abolition of poverty within capitalism was expressed most fully. The French Constitution of 1793 included the following provision:

Public aid is a sacred debt. Society owes subsistence to the unfortunate, either by procuring them work, or by assuring the means of existence to those who are unable to work.
An influential 1790 pamphlet written by Noel Babeuf argued:
Each citizen ought to have an assured existence, be it from revenue from his properties, be it from his labor and his industry. And if infirmities or misfortunes reduce him to misery, society ought to provide for his subsistence.
This commitment to the prevention of poverty evaporated in the wake of the French Revolution, but resurfaced in the failed Revolution of 1848. The demand for publicly-financed work was a central element in this uprising. In response, the government initially decreed: "The Government of the French Republic commits itself to guarantee the existence of the worker by labor. It commits itself to guarantee labor to all citizens." Following this decree, the government briefly established employment "workshops" that were flooded with so many applicants the government had to turn away tens of thousands of destitute individuals, even though the wages were meager. When the government dismantled this program, massive protests ensued, resulting in the arrest of 12,000 persons and the death of several hundred protesters who were shot by government troops.

Despite the strong support among workers for this spontaneous movement, Karl Marx ridiculed the French workhouses and denigrated the right to living-wage employment as the "first clumsy formula wherein the revolutionary aspirations of the proletariat are summarized." Subsequently, European Marxists often rejected the "liberal" claim for immediate non-poverty guarantees, arguing that a more total "revolution" must happen first. At the same time, many Marxists stereotyped the poor as the "lumpen proletariat," based on the French word "lump" which means "contemptible person." Reflecting the stereotypes of the larger society, these Marxists considered the unemployed poor to be degraded and cut off from the more virtuous "working class."

When Marxists-Leninists did seize power, however, particularly in the Soviet Union and Cuba, they managed to largely guarantee the basic material needs of everyone in those countries, though they did so with totalitarian methods.

Following the global Depression of the 1930s, Pope Pius XI reaffirmed Christian faith as follows:

Social justice cannot be said to have been satisfied as long as workingmen are denied a salary that will enable them to secure proper sustenance for themselves and for their families; as long as they are denied the opportunity of acquiring a modest fortune and forestalling the plague of universal pauperism; as long as they cannot make suitable provision through public or private insurance for old age, for periods of illness and unemployment.
This perspective has consistently been reflected in the work of progressive Christian activists.

Beginning in the 1930s, the Scandinavian countries of northern Europe, in particular Sweden, established a remarkable degree of economic security within the context of free-market capitalism. Commonly known in Europe as a form of "social democracy," the Swedish model has been a mixed economy. A stock market, extensive for-profit ownership of private business, substantial inequality, and other common features of capitalism have been combined with a major role for the national government.

Until the early 1990s, through a variety of mechanisms, the Swedish government forged a partnership with business and labor organizations to create private- and public-sector employment as needed to provide a living-wage job to all who wanted to work. Public-service jobs were created to meet real human needs. Public subsidies were provided private businesses to hire the unemployed, who weren't able to collect unemployment benefits indefinitely. In addition, the retired and disabled were provided with ample benefits. For some 50 years, without producing severe inflation, Sweden achieved full employment. Sweden achieved these objectives because there was strong support for their policies throughout the society, including major business and labor organizations.

In recent years, however, this unity has crumbled as international bankers and other global corporate forces have pressured Sweden to back off from its antipoverty policies. As the Soviet Union was disintegrating, many former Communists were looking at Sweden as a "middle way." The Western media widely publicized this increased attention to Sweden. This sudden popularity of the Swedish model most likely intensified behind-the-scenes efforts to persuade Swedish economic elites to "get on board" with the austerity program promoted by the major industrialized nations, especially the United States and Germany. Swedish banking and corporate sectors came under increasing pressure to renege on their previous commitments to Swedish labor.

The outcome of this effort to discredit social democracy in Sweden is unclear. Swedish political rhetoric has become more "conservative," some publicly-owned enterprises have been privatized, social-welfare benefits have been reduced substantially, and unemployment has grown to previously unheard-of levels. But public-service employment and income-support measures remain at high levels; most of Sweden's social-welfare policies have only been reduced or modified, not thrown out the window.

At the same time, in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and many other countries throughout the world, the "Swedish model" is far from dead. Critics of capitalist-imposed poverty are persistently calling for government action to reduce poverty. The U.S.-led global campaign to reduce the role of government is meeting stiff resistance. Parties rooted in social democracy, sometimes calling themselves socialists, are winning elections in former Soviet countries. In late 1995, labor unions in France rallied strong support for their opposition to government cutbacks. And the German social democrats are experiencing a revival of enthusiasm. Some of these advocates use phrases like the "social market" as an alternative to the supposedly totally "free" market" touted by conservatives. They vehemently reject the claim that the government should do nothing to protect the less fortunate.

The Swedish model, or social democracy, is not perfect. Wealth has continued to be highly concentrated in countries governed by social democrats. A bureaucratic paternalism has been a common feature of these governments. And the tendency of political leaders to sacrifice basic principles to get re-elected is an inherent problem in any representative government. Nevertheless, with a concerted effort by the general public to address these problems, European social democracy provides a valuable starting point. The National Economic Security Program is very much rooted in this tradition.

B. Past Efforts to End Poverty in the United States

1. The Levelers

As vividly recounted by Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States, from the moment that the colonial elite first began to monopolize land, those who were excluded resisted with calls for "leveling," or equalizing wealth. Inspired by similar movements in England, Levelers in the colonies were a potent force.

From testimony by elites, it is clear that protests such as Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia in 1676 had strong support among the general population and that this support was motivated by "hopes of leveling." Though lacking a clear focus, Bacon's Rebellion mobilized enough force that the governor had to flee the capital before military reserves overwhelmed the disorganized rebels - who consisted of indentured servants, slaves, and poor whites who had been forced to the frontier when they did not receive land grants near the coast.

Agitation for a redistribution of economic resources persisted throughout the colonies, leaving elites in constant fear that the masses would confiscate their wealth. Strikes, slowdowns, and other worker protests over inadequate compensation are recorded from as early as 1636. According to Zinn:

Starting with Bacon's Rebellion, by 1760, there had been eighteen uprisings aimed at overthrowing colonial governments. These had also been six black rebellions, from South Carolina to New York, and forty riots of various origins.

Examples of the Leveler's movement include:

an enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness, of mankind; and therefore every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property.

Most Levelers allied with wealthy elites to defeat the British in the War of Independence, but the elites quelled their protests following victory. The strength of underlying populist sentiment is reflected in a 1785 letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, in which he reflected upon "that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe." Jefferson continued with this comment:

[T]he earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live-on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed.
This point-of-view has continued to motivate populist protest in this country ever since. Periodic campaigns against economic injustice persisted, though the term "leveling" faded.

2. The 1800s

In Impatient Armies of the Poor, Franklin Folsom presents a history of popular struggle for governmental action to increase economic opportunity from 1808 to 1942. Early examples include:

Over the next few decades, periodic protests by the unemployed, occasionally resulted in the expenditure of relatively small amounts of public funds to create limited numbers of public-sector jobs. But energy for fundamental reform was drained by various utopian groups that attempted to establish separatist, self-help societies and by demands for free land in the West (which led to the Homestead Act of 1862).

Demands for publicly-financed employment continued to emerge periodically, however. A banner in an 1857 Trenton, New Jersey demonstration, for example, read: "We ask not alms but work that our wives and children may not starve." An demonstrators in New York in 1854 demanded: "We Want Work and Must Have It!" Covering this protest by the Ward Relief Association, the poet Walt Whitman, then an editor of the Brooklyn Times, wrote on October 21, 1854:

Vainly the Laborer cries out in the market places and the corners of the streets--
No pariah money or loaf.
No pauper badges for me,
A son of the soil, by the right of toil
Entitled to my fee.
No alms I ask, give me my task:
Here are the arms, the leg,
The strength, the sinews of a man,
To work and not to beg.
Two weeks later, 5,000 demonstrators marched through the city behind a banner proclaiming "We Want Work." In response to this disturbance, which continued for a few weeks, New York City undertook the creation of Central Park and other public-works projects.

During the depression of the 1870s, the Tenth Ward Workingmen's Association in New York organized the unemployed behind three demands:

1. Work to be provided for all those willing and able to work at the usual wages and on the eight-hours plan.

2. An advance of either money or produce sufficient for one week's sustenance to be made to laborers and their families in actual distress.

3. No ejectment from lodgings to be made for non-payment of rent from December 1st, 1873 to May 1st, 1874.

This organization joined with others to form the Committee of Safety to demand public works; it peaked with a demonstration of several thousand in Tompkins Square during the winter of 1873-4. A demonstration of some 20,000 in Chicago in late 1873 produced some increase in private relief for the unemployed. The Workingmen's Party of California in the late 1870s - which demanded "work, bread or a place in the county jail" - illustrates that the demand for publicly-financed employment was a national phenomenon. But these efforts only resulted in some increase in private charity.

During the severe recession of 1893, the Labor and Temporary Relief Committee forced the city of Chicago to fund about 3,000 temporary public-works jobs. Later that year, at the thirteenth annual convention of the American Federation of Labor presided over by Samuel Gompers, a Chicagoan machinist proposed a resolution that read, in part:

Resolved, That the right to work is the right to life, that to deny one is to destroy the other. That when the private employer cannot or will not give work the municipality, state or nation must.
The convention adopted this resolution.

A year later, a disorganized collection of "Industrial Armies" from more than forty cities attempted to march on Washington demanding public works. In the face of police intervention, only a few of these armies made it to their destination. One group that did reach Washington presented a petition to Congress with four demands, the first of which was "immediate employment on public works at fair wages or else national assistance to supply their own wants by cooperative industry."

3. The Great Depression, Socialism, and the New Deal

During the first three decades of this century, many elements of the left in the United States echoed European objections to pressing the national government to create jobs. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), for example, chose not to focus on the national government, because, as they said, "...we do not share the view that the unemployed can be entirely eliminated within the capitalist system." They also opposed "parades to City Halls, Capitols, etc., (as) nothing more substantial than hot air." The IWW instead attempted to organize the unemployed by setting up soup lines and conducting demonstrations directed at the wealthy themselves, including invading churches and demanding relief.

Similarly, the Socialist Labor Party actively opposed all efforts to address the needs of the jobless. And the Socialist Party, led by Eugene V. Debs, only called for "[public] insurance ... in case of accidents, lack of employment, sickness and want in old age." These organizations did little to actually improve the lives of the unemployed and failed to advocate publicly-funded jobs. Unemployment Councils in certain cities pressured local governments for financial relief. But in general, socialists and leftists in the early part of the century did not agitate for fundamental change in national economic policy.

The Great Depression, however, brought these issues to the forefront of the national agenda. But even under these conditions, much of the left focused only on financial aid, not the creation of public-sector jobs. The National Unemployed Council, for example, organized by the Communist Party, confronted local, state and national governments, declaring "our task is to see that not one unemployed worker or his family shall be without decent food, housing and clothing." The first National Hunger March on Washington in December, 1931, organized by this Council, demanded:

1. Immediate unemployment insurance at full wages administered by workers for all workers without discrimination of any kind.

2. Social insurance payments for illness, accident, old age and maternity.

3. Winter relief of $50 for each unemployed worker plus $10 for each dependent, the money to come from funds hitherto allocated for military purposes.

4. Transformation of huge stocks of wheat and cotton held by the Farm Board into bread and clothing for the jobless.

5. No eviction of unemployed workers. Free rent, gas and light to all unemployed.

6. A seven hour day with no reduction in wages for most workers, and a six hour day for miners, railroad workers and young workers.

7. Prohibition of all forced labor in connection with relief or insurance, and no discrimination.

8. Full and immediate payment of the balance of the veterans bonus to ex-servicemen.

In contrast, at about the same time, on November 20 and December 1 in 1931, the writer, John Dewey, head of the People's Lobby, convened a conference of 300 intellectuals in Washington and lobbied Congress for federal action. In addition to financial relief and affordable housing, they called for a public-works program. In today's dollars, their proposal constituted about $35 billion. They proposed raising funds with taxes on the wealthy and opposed applying any "pauper test" for recipients of the aid.

The next winter, during December, 1932, the National Unemployment Council organized the Second National Hunger March on Washington and presented demands for federal financial relief. The Socialist Party, led by Norman Thomas, then became involved in organizing the unemployed and advocated reforms such as unemployment insurance and the need for a shorter workweek. In addition, out of the labor movement, graduates of the Brookwood Labor College founded by A.J. Muste formed the National Unemployed League. Unlike these other efforts, this group did agitate for the proposition that "all persons have the duty and the right to work."

Partly because these efforts on behalf of the unemployed largely ignored the needs of the elderly, a sizable movement for pensions for the aged emerged suddenly in 1933, determined to achieve for senior citizens in this country what had already been established in several European countries. Founded by Charles F. Townsend, a 66-year-old physician, and Robert E. Clements, a real estate promoter, this campaign came to be known as "the Townsend movement." According to Townsend, 7,000 clubs nationwide included some four million members. Regardless of the accuracy of his claim, his organization waged a furious lobbying campaign for the Townsend plan, which Folsom summarizes as follows:

The government should pay every person over 60 a monthly pension of $200 - a lot of money in 1933. Each recipient of this amount would be obliged to spend it all within thirty days. With about 10 million people spending $200 a month, there would be a vast increase in consumption of goods and services. Production would increase to meet this demand, the unemployed would go back to work, and the depression would come to an end.
Townsend presented his plan in a letter to the editor of his Long Beach newspaper on September 30, 1933 and within two years a vast movement with a club membership of millions had erupted. Representative John S. McGroarty introduced this plan as legislation in April, 1935. Shortly afterwards, President Roosevelt added to the 1935 Social Security Act a provision for $10 per month pensions for those over seventy. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins later wrote that Roosevelt had told her, "We have to have it [pensions for the elderly]. The Congress can't stand the pressure of the Townsend Plan unless we have a real old-age insurance system."

Roosevelt also felt heat from other quarters. In the autumn of 1933, the novelist Upton Sinclair, a socialist, announced that we would run for Governor of California as a Democrat. He then wrote another novel, I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty. In this book, he proposed a 10-point program to "End Poverty in California (EPIC)" that called for stiff taxes on the rich to employ the unemployed on foreclosed farms and in abandoned factories. Sinclair's book and campaign led to "the most powerful social movement in California's history," according to Greg Mitchel, author of a book on this subject. Sinclair easily won the Democratic nomination and appeared to have a good chance to be elected Governor in November.

But the Republican Party mobilized the first massive advertising campaign ever conducted in American politics, complete with short films shown in movie theaters. This effort smeared Sinclair by attributing to him inflammatory statements expressed by characters in his novels. "Out of His Own Mouth Shall He Be Judged," the campaign hammered away, successfully. Sinclair, however, still gained about 45 percent of the vote, elected two dozen EPIC candidates to the state legislature, and helped establish the Democratic Party as a progressive force in California. Moreover, Sinclair's threat served notice to President and Congress that vigorous action was needed to address the nation's horrendous economic conditions.

The Share the Wealth Society organized in January 1934 by Louisiana Governor Huey Long added to the mounting pressure for fundamental social change. As summarized by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Long proposed that the federal government, in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars:

take by taxation all income over [$8 million] and all inheritances over [$40 million].... [In addition] government would furnish every American family with a "homestead allowance" of at least [$40,000] and an annual income of at least [$16,000].... Hours of labor would be limited. Agricultural production and consumption would be balanced through government storage and the control of planting. Everyone over sixty would receive an "adequate" pension.
Long organized Share the Wealth clubs throughout the country and soon claimed seven million members. Though this number was probably exaggerated, nevertheless the movement made an impact. Presidential advisor Louis Howe told Roosevelt, "It is symptoms like this I think we should watch very carefully." Long's assassination in September, 1935, ended this political threat to Roosevelt's re-election in 1936.

After the demise of the National Recovery Act of 1933, Roosevelt's New Deal backed away from a strong role for the federal government in planning and shaping economic growth - known today as "industrial policy." Instead, by 1939 Roosevelt came down strongly in support of deficit spending as a means to boost the economy.

During World War II, the National Resources Planning Board proposed that full employment be a major federal goal after the war. And in his 1944 State of the Union address and during the presidential campaign later that year, Roosevelt argued for a stronger federal role in securing economic justice. More specifically, he proposed that Congress adopt an Economic Bill of Rights based on the following eight points:

  1. The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
  2. The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
  3. The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
  4. The right of every business man, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
  5. The right of every family to a decent home;
  6. The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
  7. The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment;
  8. The right to a good education.

Though Roosevelt died shortly after the 1944 election, the Truman Administration supported the introduction in Congress of the Employment Act of 1946, which originally affirmed the "right to a useful and remunerative job." But stiff opposition from conservatives led to the deletion of this key phrase and a rapid weakening of pressure for full employment.

Throughout the history of the New Deal, Roosevelt was under great pressure from socialists calling for government seizure of the "means of production," as well as populists such as Townsend and Long. Though the socialists typically rallied support for specific reforms that stopped short of expropriating private property, they also built support for their longer-term agenda: state ownership of industry. The strength of the socialist movement during the Great Depression has led commentators to conclude in hindsight that the New Deal "saved" capitalism in the United States.

The National Economic Security Program (NESP) is clearly closer to the New Deal than it is to the call for public ownership of the means of production. The 10-point NESP program essentially concretizes Roosevelt's 8-point economic bill of rights. This approach accepts a "mixed economy" that includes a stock market and privately-owned corporations as major components of the economy - as well as a strong governmental role in both regulating the economy and meeting needs that are neglected by the private sector.

Contrary to the assertions of some Marxists (and some conservatives), economic security under capitalism is possible. Some degree of inequality is probably essential to the capitalist system to fuel the drive for personal advancement. But there is no reason that lower-income people cannot have enough to live decently, or that inequality must be as severe as it is today.

Moving toward and eventually establishing economic security might create difficulties in the financial markets. Some critics argue that full employment will spark massive "capital flight" as wage increases cut into profits and investors move their resources to foreign countries where they can gain greater returns. But this potential problem will be mitigated by the following factors:

Moreover, potential capital deficits can be discouraged by restricting global financial flows and strengthening self-sufficiency. As argued by David Korten in When Corporations Rule the World, the federal government can establish:

In addition, the government can promote domestic investment by eliminating tax credits and tax deferrals for foreign investments. And the government can offer long-term, long-interest loans to socially responsible entities, especially worker-owned businesses. With methods such as these, we can maximize domestic self-sufficiency and guard against the risk of capital flight.

This approach does not imply, however, that private-property rights are God-given, absolute, or supreme. Private property as currently conceived is a relatively recent human invention - established by government and limited by government. Corporations in the United States, for example, are chartered by state governments; those governments can revoke charters if and when they decide that a corporation is no longer serving the public interest. Through our government, we, the people, define the rights of private property and allow the owners of private property to function so long as we believe that it is in our interest to do so. In this regard, socialists were correct to challenge the assumption that the rights of private property are absolute. But the socialists were wrong to rely so heavily on government ownership and to reject the setting of prices through free-market competition.

From this perspective, NESP leaves unanswered many questions about the role of government in managing the economy. On the local level, for example, governments may well control rent increases. And on the national level, the federal government may or may not engage in trust-busting, impose price controls on particular industries, or encourage employee-owned businesses and other forms of workplace democracy. Moreover, NESP does not address the issue of what measures will be needed after we establish economic security. Rather, this program simply declares first-things-first: whatever happens with regard to these others issues, let's first make sure that we guarantee economic security for all. Then we can consider what to do next.

4. The War on Poverty

The post-War economic boom produced rising expectations and intense frustration among those left out of the new prosperity. Especially in African American ghettos outside the South, the conflict between the American Dream and reality was painfully apparent. After the War, large numbers of African Americans migrated to the North and West hoping for a new, more prosperous life. Housing discrimination and prohibitive costs forced them into increasingly crowded, oppressive, segregated, and explosive ghettos.

In the years immediately following the election of John Kennedy as President in 1960, a number of journalists and academics were keenly aware of this economic injustice. A January, 1963 review by Dwight Macdonald in The New Yorker of Michael Harrington's book, The Other America, made it to the President's desk. In March of that year, the President responded positively when Walter Heller, his top economic adviser, recommended that he address the issue of poverty. Over the next several months, Heller coordinated the development of preliminary plans. As described by Nicholas Lemann in a major, two-part article in The Atlantic Monthly, at the time of his assassination in November, Kennedy remained supportive of some action, but was cautious about how to proceed.

Less than two months later, following Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon Johnson, seeking a grand political gesture to rally the nation, declared "unconditional war on poverty." Later that year, Congress launched the War on Poverty with ten new programs, the largest of which was "community action," later known as "community development."

Community action and community development are based on setting up a neighborhood planning board to determine local needs, establish priorities, and help coordinate the work of social-service agencies. Concrete efforts typically involve providing remedial education, job training, and assisting individuals with gaining government assistance. Relatively untested in 1964, this strategy of reducing poverty from within the ghetto remains unproved today. As Lemann argues:

...[T]he best way for the federal government to increase opportunity for the poor [is] through major national efforts.... [Community development was an] effort to eliminate poverty in a capitalist country without giving poor people either money or jobs.

Under President Kennedy, Heller's group rejected Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz's proposal that the antipoverty effort focus on a federal jobs program funded with three to four billion dollars. And in 1966, President Johnson opposed Senator Robert Kennedy's bill to create two million public-service jobs. Instead, he supported a new Model Cities program rooted in the community-action concept, run by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The lack of success associated with these community-action efforts, along with some dramatic scandals, quickly led to major political problems for their supporters in Congress. President Nixon continued to support OEO during his first term. But upon being re-elected in 1972, he quickly dismantled it.

Despite the failure of the main program identified with the War on Poverty, however, other efforts launched during this period have been notably effective. Medicaid, established in 1965, has provided poor people with health care. The food-stamp, initiated in 1970, has substantially reduced hunger. Head Start is widely accepted as a beneficial compensatory-education program for low-income preschoolers. Since 1972, Supplemental Security Income has enabled many retired and disabled people to avoid total destitution. And the growth from 1965 to 1975 in the number of families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children has boosted the incomes of millions. These gains associated with the War on Poverty, however, were modest. Both the Johnson and Nixon Administrations fought the War on Poverty with little conviction.

5. Poor People's Campaign

The nation's half-hearted commitment to the War on Poverty deeply troubled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While marching in early 1968 in support of James Meredith's attempt to enter the University of Mississippi, King visited a small, rural Mississippi schoolhouse where he observed the teacher serve the students a few crackers and a piece of apple for lunch. That night, as told by his closest associate, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King lay on his bed, disturbed, and told Abernathy:

We've got to do something for [those children]. We can't let that kind of poverty exist in this country.... We have to take these people to Washington and show them to the government.... I'm going to propose ... that we organize a Poor People's Campaign to expose poverty, so everyone can see it.
King told Abernathy that he envisioned large delegations going to congressional hearings and lobbying administration officials, working out of a temporary tent city in the heart of Washington, D.C. King proposed the following as the focus of the demonstration:
First, we need a guaranteed minimum wage in this country, so that no family will be without the means to buy the necessities of life. Second, we need vouchers or stamps for free food; so that the parents of those children can go to any grocery store and buy the right kind of food. And third, we need to do away with the commodity program, where people are given whatever surplus food the government has - when they have it. All poor people get is starches and fats.
Though a number of his key staff people persistently opposed the plan, King and his organization, SCLC, proceed to concentrate on building the Poor People's Campaign and announced it to the public in mid-February. When King was assassinated in April of that year, his driving concern was this struggle against poverty. Though historians have largely ignored King's unfulfilled dream, the media and officials in Washington at the time gave it great attention. The following listings in The New York Times Index under "Martin Luther King - Poor People's Campaign" for March and early April, 1968 demonstrate how worried ruling elites were about King's Poor People's Campaign:

King demanded "jobs or income now." On one occasion, he stated:

I think [a guaranteed job] ought to be the first thing, that we guarantee every person capable of working a job. And this can be done in many, many ways. There are many things that we need to be done that could be done that's not being done now. And this could provide the jobs.... And of course, there are definitely going to be people all along, people who are unemployable, as a result of age, as a result of something that failed to develop here or there, and as a result of physical disability. Now these are the people who just couldn't work. Certainly they have a right to have an income. If one has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then he has a right to have an income. Now, this may mean a radical, in a sense, redefinition of work. Maybe we've got to come to see that a mother who's at home as a housekeeper or as a housewife is working.
After King's death, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) persisted with the march on Washington. On May 12, Coretta King addressed a rally of thousands at a high school football stadium in Washington. That night, the demonstrators set up Resurrection City on the Washington Mall. Horrendous rains and internal conflicts among the residents of the tent city, including problems with violent crimes, led to considerable demoralization and negative publicity. But on June 19, some 100,000 marchers participated in the campaign's largest rally.

In his autobiography, Abernathy argues:

we had actually won several important victories in Congress: the elimination of commodities as sole sustenance; the introduction of food stamps; the promise of a jobs program (never fulfilled); the alteration of rules on welfare.<
But most people at the time perceived the Poor People's Campaign as a chaotic disaster, seriously weakened by King's murder. King's organization was struggling, even at the time of his death. When SCLC attacked Southern apartheid, Northerners could provide support with a sense of superiority. But when King addressed his attention to Northern racism and economic injustice, he received much less support. Financial donors and the media became less sympathetic. Under these conditions, with weak support even from his own organization, King would have been hard pressed to pull off a highly successful March on Washington in 1968. In his absence, Abernathy and SCLC persevered, with limited results. When the authorities forced the small group of remaining campers off the Mall shortly after the rally, the Washington ghetto erupted. The Mayor called in the National Guard to quell the riot. King's dream remains unfulfilled.

Sources for this chapter included the following, in order of appearance.
For more specific references, contact Wade Hudson at

Holy Bible: King James Version, World Publishing Company, Exodus 23: 10-11. Leviticus 25: 13/23/35.
Amos 8: 4/10.
Luke 4: 18-19
Luke 14: 13.
Acts 2: 44-5.

Philip Harvey, "Employment as a Human Right," paper presented to the American Sociological Association, August 1990.

Definition of "lumpen" in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam Co, 1977, 684.

Pope Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris (On Atheistic Communism), 19 March 1937.

Doug Henwood, Left Business Observer, Number 47, 2.

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, Harper & Row, 59.

Edmund S. Morgan, "The Fixers," The New York Review, 2 March 1995, 25-27.

Franklin Folsom, Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed, 1808-1942, University Press of Colorado, 1991.

Paul Willon, "Dr. Townsend's Plan," The New York Times, Letters, 8 February 1995, A12.

Greg Mitchell, "When Writers Think They're Politicians," The New York Times Book Review, 1 November 1992, 1/26/27.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Politics of Upheaval, 1960, 63.

David M. Kennedy, "Hey, Big Spenders," The New York Times Book Review, 12 March 1995, 9/10.

Quoted in Philip Harvey, Securing the Right to Employment: Social Welfare Policy and the Unemployed in the United States, Princeton University Press, 1989, 3/4/127.

Bertram Gross, "Rethinking Full Employment," The Nation, 17 January 1987, 45.

David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World, Berret-Koehler Publishers, 1995, 313-314.

Sheila D. Collins, Helen Lachs Ginsburg, and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, Jobs for All: A Plan for the Revitalization of America, The Apex Press, 1994, 72-74.

Nicholas Lemann, "The Unfinished War," The Atlantic Monthly, December 1988/January 1989.

Ralph David Abernathy, And The Walls Came Tumbling Down, Harper & Row, 413. Ibid., 314.

James Melvin Washington, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ames Melvin Washington (ed.), Harper San Francisco, 1986, 409.

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