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Professor explores origins of 'War on Poverty,' new challenges

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

LAWRENCE — Fifty years ago this year, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation declaring an "unconditional war on poverty in America," and a University of Kansas researcher studies how America’s post-World War II battle against poverty abroad planted the seeds for a major tenet of Johnson's Great Society.

"Essentially fighting poverty at home became a way to demonstrate that the U.S. was, as Henry Luce famously wrote, the 'Good Samaritan to the World' and was a truly egalitarian society in the context of the Cold War," said Sheyda Jahanbani, a KU assistant professor of history.

Jahanbani, who had two recent essays published on the global origins of the war on poverty, said that, after World War II, the U.S. took on the project of developing former colonies of Europe, including in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. President Harry’s Truman’s Point Four program, Jahanbani said, was the opening salvo in a now 65-year-long war on poverty abroad.

"In this post-war period, one of the things that the U.S. bore responsibility for was proving to the world that it was a new kind of hegemon, that it was a benevolent power," she said.

That sense of responsibility, as well as the strategies that American policymakers honed in international development projects, blossomed into a 1960s commitment along the same lines at home.

"Much of the intellectual infrastructure for the war on poverty at home came from the experiences of American policymakers and social scientists in the Third World after the Second World War," Jahanbani said. "Now the commitment was not just to solve social problems abroad but to use those same techniques at home, proving to the world that the U.S. was not above showing its dirty laundry to the rest of the world and also showing what a democracy was willing to do to expand the rights and life possibilities of every citizen."

Part of a larger effort among historians of U.S. foreign relations to chart the history of American nation-building and explore the idea of a postwar American empire, Jahanbani's article "'Across the Ocean, Across the Tracks': Imagining Global Poverty in Cold War America" was published this summer in the Journal of American Studies. Her 2013 essay "'One Global War on Poverty' Fighting Underdevelopment at Home and Abroad, 1964-1968," which traces the connections between the domestic War on Poverty and international development programs of the 1960s, appeared in a new book from Oxford University Press, "Beyond the Cold War: Lyndon Johnson and the Global Challenges of the 1960s." Jahanbani’s own study of the origins of global poverty, "'The Poverty of the World': Rediscovering the Poor at Home and Abroad, 1941-1972," will appear in June 2015, also from Oxford.

In her research, Jahanbani argues that international origins of the war on poverty are important because they shed light on the history and legacy of American liberalism. Deemed a failure by politicians since the 1970s, the War on Poverty programs relied, Jahanbani argues, not on “big government, but on a small-scale, volunteer model."

The Peace Corps, she says, was in some sense the template for all of the new poverty programs that Johnson deployed at home. Since the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan acknowledged defeat in the War on Poverty, more of the activity aimed at combating poverty has come from volunteer organizations partially funded by but not directed by the federal government, specifically nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations. This does not represent a rejection of the Great Society, Jahanbani argues, but is instead a surprising legacy of it.

"That seems very interesting to me. Perhaps there's been a much more enduring legacy of the war on poverty than we know," Jahanbani said. "This 'third sector' does a majority of the social work — it's done by NGOs and nonprofit organizations. But, who built the third sector? Many of them were people who were also brought up in the Great Society family."

Of America’s continuing struggle with poverty, she said that in the 1960s, liberals were concerned about persistent inequality but that an affluent society pushed those anxieties to the margins.

“Today, however, inequality has become a far more important word in our political life than poverty,” she said.

Upon the 50-year mark of most the war on poverty legislation, Jahanbani said student debt and the increasing cost of education seems to be the most significant aspects of the poverty problem as middle-class families understand it today, which is likely a key reason the Obama administration has made tackling student debt issues a legislative priority.

"Increasingly for young people, college has become a requirement to become middle-class," she said. "But, the fact that college can indebt a person so dramatically and that they can't make up for it with a lifetime of labor is very detrimental to our democracy and America’s image in the world."

She said other issues have dramatically affected the middle class, including deindustrialization.

"There are still working classes in this country. But they’re not earning enough to live the American dream. It strikes me that if you're going to work, you've got to think at least there's something you're working for," Jahanbani said.

Typically, it was aspirations to move into the middle class, she said.

"When that becomes less and less of a reality for people, we're talking about a much bigger problem of poverty than what the war on poverty was built to fight," Jahanbani said. "The war on poverty happened in the context of an affluent society, one so rich that it could promise abundance not just to Americans but to people around the world.

"Now we're talking about a poor society in an impoverished world, and that's frightening because, of course, Americans are still not poor in the aggregate. We've got enough to go around but scarcity, rather than abundance, is the experience most Americans are having. That has real implications for America's place in the world and, of course, for democracy at home."