In the trenches during Johnson’s War on Poverty

When Lyndon Johnson advanced his War on Poverty 50 years ago, I was a reporter on an upstate New York newspaper.

Most of us thought it was a good idea, as did our publisher, a noted liberal thinker. Young reporters liked the liberal Johnson, and so did headline writers, who christened him LBJ

Johnson’s war was great for reporters because it generated a lot of government activity.  One was the Model Cities Program that was supposed to rebuild the nation’s urban areas. Covering what was called urban renewal became a full-time journalistic job as plans were advanced to tear down the central city to construct new buildings.

The principal beneficiaries, it seemed, were slumlords who were able to dump their rundown properties. Later we noticed that all those new buildings had no provisions for housing, and after 5:30 p.m. the downtown became empty.

Perhaps my most interesting news story was about a man who had an elaborate flea circus in the second floor of a slum warehouse. In the same way some hobbyists build model train setups, this man had the Ringling Brothers times 10 laid out in miniature. It was elaborate and impressive. Also impressive was the bill the urban renewal authority approved to move every little tent, every little ferris wheel and every tiny elephant.  But it was federal money after all.

Then there was Medicaid, which was designed to help the poor meet medical expenses.

There is a lot of learned criticism about the War on Poverty. Perhaps the most pointed was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said in 1967 that the promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam. But in January 1964 when Johnson gave his speech few even knew where Vietnam was located.

New York had passed enabling legislation that allowed it to get a head start on some of the federal programs. It was a pioneer in Medicaid. But a year later we were reporting that dentists at least had experienced a big jump in income because of the program. News stories documented individual dentists who had brought in $100,000 or more in this Upstate area by fixing the mouths of the poor. That was in 1965  dollars.

The fact was brought home solidly four years later when a day before going overseas, I needed to get some dental work. I went to the father of a friend, explained my plight, and for two hours tried not to struggle as the dentist filled six cavities in two hours.

When he was done, he said to me: “You know, that’s the most cavities I ever filled in one sitting . . . Medicaid excepted, of course.

Later in 1964 Robert Kennedy left his job as attorney general and moved to New York to run for the U.S. Senate. The family name drew enough votes so that he deposed Kenneth Keating, a Republican and a true gentleman.

From the time he took office, Kennedy tried to be the champion of the poor. He was a political foe of the then-governor, Nelson Rockefeller. I was the main political reporter then, and each afternoon the telephone would ring. Sometimes, it was Rockefeller’s Washington office announcing a new grant, contract or program to benefit the state.

A few minutes later, the call would be from Kennedy’s office. The next day the order would be reversed. Both men argued their points of view in public forums.

Kennedy successfully brought an handful of upstate New York counties under the wing of the Appalachian Regional Commission, an antipoverty effort. Rockefeller argued that upstate New York had little in common with the more traditional Appalachian regions like East Tennessee. But that brought in federal money.

The feud, of course, would end dramatically in 1968 when Kennedy was cut down in a California hotel just as he seemed to be headed to the White House.

In retrospect, we reporters were too naive and too trusting of Big Government. Urban renewal gutted the cities. Medicaid became a monster that consumes nearly $500 billion in federal dollars each year.

Food stamps, another antipoverty effort, seems to have evolved into a subsidy for the groceries and suppliers. Studies question the effectiveness of the Head Start programs for pre-school children.

Yet, 1964 and 1965 were heady times when reporters and politicians thought they could change the world with a checkbook. And this was before the dark days of Vietnam, which Martin Luther King correctly noted shifted federal priorities.

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