Category Archives: War on Poverty

Much Less Frigid Air

The War We Lost

So, yesterday was the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s declaration of War on Poverty.

It was one of the great moments in American history.

Loyal readers know how I feel about LBJ. He was an uncouth, bullying, macho, conniving political huckster. He also felt, deep within his heart and soul, a kinship with black human beings and poor human beings. And he acted on those empathies — for a precious moment.



Had he and the Congress allowed the resultant Great Society programs to actually eliminate malnutrition, lack of education, joblessness, and all the other ills of need that bedeviled this holy land, the richest on Earth, he would have gone down as one of the greatest three or four presidents ever.

Sadly, he got, to borrow a term he often used, his pecker caught in Vietnam.

This nation decided it was far more important to prosecute an unwinnable, pointless, poorly-executed war in the Southeast Asian jungles than to help our less fortunate brothers and sisters here climb out of despair.

Now, here we are, 50 years later. The gap between rich and poor grows daily. Commentators chirp that the economy is is churning once again after the Great Recession, yet it seems the only beneficiaries are moneyed investors and Wall Street casino players. Municipalities and social and cultural institutions are starving for cash. Unemployment remains remarkably high. And far too many of the available jobs are in the service industries, paying minimum wage.

In the War on Poverty, poverty won.

Mother Jones mag yesterday ran a piece on where we are, poverty-wise, now in the United States. A trio of authors suggest we’ve both won and lost the War. If we take the authors at their word, that the result was a mixed bag, then, really, we’ve lost. LBJ himself said, in announcing the War, “… [W]e shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it.”

Check out the six charts illustrating the depths of American poverty in the 21st Century. Some things have changed for the better. Some things. That’s all.

The political debate today is no nearer to revisiting the ideas of the Great Society than it is to the consideration of dumping all our currency, stocks, and bonds in a huge pile, dousing it with gasoline, and lighting a match.

Poor people, you’re on your own.

To me, that’s a losing coda.

[h/t to Susan Sandberg for pointing out the MJ mag piece.]

The Big Interview

Hey, dig my interview with graphic novelist Nate Powell this afternoon on the WFHB Daily Local News.



It’s the first in a new series of conversations between me and people I find compelling and interesting. Each tête à tête will run as an 8-minute feature on WFHB and then as a full-out conversation in The Ryder magazine.

Powell is the illustrator of the graphic novel, March: Book One, about the life of Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was a key figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Lewis got his skull broken by an Alabama state trooper on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. That was the day voting rights activists attempted to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge at Selma but were met and routed by local and state cops.

Powell has written and drawn a number of award-winning and big-selling comics and graphic novels including Swallow Me Whole, Any Empire, and The Silence of Our Friends. He lives in Bloomington now with his wife and two-year-old daughter.

Tune in at 5:30pm or catch the podcast (after it’s put up, natch) on the station’s website. The longer Powell interview will run in next month’s Ryder.

A Contrarian’s Rationalization

Loyal readers know I refuse to get a smartphone. Some folks look at me as if I’m from the moon when I whip out my trusty flip phone. I don’t care.

Yeah, a lot of it has to do with my fetish for contrarianism but, really, there’s thought behind my refusal to jump on the e-toy bandwagon.

Smartphone Users

Personal technology writer David Pogue laid out a good case for my narrowly-focused Luddism in last month’s Scientific American:

We all know that the cycle of electronics consumerism is broken. Because it’s an endless money drain for consumers to keep their gadgets current. Because the never ending desire to show off new features leads to bloat and complexity of design. And because all our outdated, abandoned gadgets have to go somewhere. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, we Americans threw away 310 million electronic gadgets in 2010 alone. That’s about 1.8 million tons of toxic, nonbiodegradable waste in our landfills.

See? I’m not a total lunatic.

The Pencil Today:


“Freedom is not enough.” — Lyndon Baines Johnson


  • “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”
  • “Our first objective is to free 30 million Americans from the prison of poverty. Can you help us free these Americans? And if you can, let me hear your voices!”
  • “Do something we can be proud of! Help the weak and the meek and lift them up and help them train and give them an education….”
  • “We have a right to expect a job, to provide food for our families, a roof over their heads, clothes for their bodies, and with your help, and with god’s help, we will have it in America!”

These are the fiery words of the President of the United States. The year was 1964. Lyndon Baines Johnson criss-crossed the country, trying to whip up excitement among volunteers and community organizers and municipal officials, hoping they’d jump on his Great Society bandwagon.

LBJ, for all his sins — and there were very, very, very many, truly believed this holy land was big and rich and powerful and generous enough to eliminate poverty here.

He pounded the podium as he spoke. He pointed at the crowd. He punched his fists in the air. He leaned so far over you might have wondered if he’d tumble into the crowd.

Imagine an old-time, stump-speaking pol, roaring at the crowd from his bully pulpit, challenging them to help the weak and the meek!

You’ll have to imagine it — no self-respecting pol today would dare utter such silliness.

He or she would be branded naive. Or worse. Liberal. Socialist. Maybe even Muslim.

I’ve lived through the liberal zenith of the mid-60s, highlighted by LBJ’s Great Society, to the nadir of today’s me-first, don’t tax me bro, every man for himself, make sure you’ve got a gun under your pillow, if you’re poor that’s your tough luck, Ayn Rand, Saint Ronald Reagan, Lloyd Blankfein doing god’s work, ugly America.

The unnecessary re-confirmation of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker drives the point home. The people of Wisconsin elected — twice — a Tory to lead them out of the economic wilderness. If there’s one true thing that can be said about people who are worried about their wallets and pocketbooks, it’s that they’ll panic. They’ll go for any tough-talking bastard who blames the weak and the meek for all the nation’s ills.

Somehow, though, for the briefest of moments the United States of America became, for lack a of a better word, holy. We actually talked about helping our brothers and sisters.

This “Christian” nation became for a fleeting instant, well, Christian.

Not anymore, baby.


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