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Washington University Film & Media Archive

America's War on Poverty

A discovery more than three decades ago that millions of people across the country were living in poverty motivated both policy-makers and the American public to establish federal programs, private sector initiatives, and grassroots political efforts. Few eras in U.S. history have been more political, distorted and misunderstood than what President Lyndon Johnson declared, during his 1964 State of the Union address, as an "unconditional war on poverty."

Through the eyes of prominent political figures and poor people, activists and onlookers, the series offers firsthand accounts from the front lines of this "war." Sargent Shriver, director of Lyndon Johnson's Office of Economic Opportunity, muses, "If you've never waged a war ... against something like poverty, and nobody's around to talk to -there are no graduates like military strategists to tell you what to do- you have to do it by trial and error. That's what we did."

Unita Blackwell, an organizer for a parent-run, federally funded Head Start program in Mississippi, recalls that many communities were inspired to adopt a broad-based approach to their local anti-poverty efforts. "If you don't have some health and some education and some participation, a feeling that you can govern yourself, then you'll forever stay in poverty.

Karen Bolte, a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer living with a family in rural Kentucky remembers: "I was taught as a child that if you work very hard in this country, you can get ahead. And here was a family that had worked very hard all their lives, and they had nothing, really, through no fault of their own, but (because of) the way the system was set up." Such encounters with poverty echoed by on-screen "witnesses" throughout the series, became a call to action answered by thousands of grassroots leaders fighting to make a difference in their own neighborhoods.

From the struggles of Head Start in Mississippi to the conflicts of VISTA in Appalachia; from community organizing in the streets of Newark and in the fields of California to the formation of a national welfare rights movement, the five one-hour programs chronicle events across the country that capture the vitality and conflicting visions of America's War on Poverty.

In This Affluent Society - President Lyndon Johnson chooses poverty as the focus of his administration's domestic agenda. During his 1964 State of the Union address he declares, "unconditional war on poverty," launching a series of initiatives designed to end poverty forever, not through welfare or job creation, but by expanding opportunities for the poor through education and training. The announcement comes during a period of unprecedented national prosperity. The economic and industrial boom following World War II has made America the wealthiest nation in the world, but not all Americans share in the good fortune.

Given A Chance - While providing opportunities for the poor, many War on Poverty programs are attacked by those who fear that the social, political and economic status quo is being upset. Head Start, created early in 1965 to provide poor children with adequate nutrition, health care and education, battles strong opposition at the height of its success in Mississippi, America's poorest state.

City of Promise - Community action, one of the cornerstones of Johnson's program, calls for "maximum feasible participation" by the poor in designing and administering federally funded anti-poverty programs. In Newark, New Jersey, the lessons of community action are played out against the backdrop of an urban center desperately lacking adequate housing and jobs.

In Service to America - From the coal mines of Appalachia to the farmlands of California, the poor and the middle class forge partnerships in the War on Poverty that open new doors for both groups. Students and other young people, roused by the social movements of the early 1960's are drawn by the thousands to programs such as Legal Services and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), which broaden the old American idea of voluntarism to a national scale.

My Brother's Keeper - The American welfare system created in 1935 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal was never intended to serve the staggering number of poor people who have joined the welfare rolls by 1968. Twenty-five million Americans live Americans live below the poverty line. While the War on Poverty has stressed education and training to lift families out of poverty, it has not addressed the growing welfare crisis, and American dissatisfaction with the system is evident. The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) is formed to deal with the crisis. This is an American story that gets to the heart of the country's conflicting notions about the deserving and undeserving poor.

Premiere: January 16, 17 and 18, 1995 PBS