What were the programs proposed by Lyndon Johnson that envisioned an America without poor people? They included not one program that transferred wealth from one slice of society to another to reduce poverty. They were job programs, education and skill training and legal help to gain access to housing and jobs. These included Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA), Job Corps, Head Start, GED programs, and Community Action Agencies to bring the poor, with programs they helped design, into the mainstream. Whether these were the right strategies — and I now have my doubts — they did not include trillions for a bailout to help people stay self-sufficient. For us now to say the War on Poverty was a success because we handed out the financial resources to alleviate poverty is a gross misunderstanding of the war in order to support the conclusion the war was at least in part won.
I took the first proposal from New York City to D.C., applying to The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and having it signed at 3 a.m. by Deputy Mayor Julius C.C. Edelstein at City Hall. Having helped write that massive document, I was a true believer that we would win the war with the programs for which we were asking funds. Looking through the back-end of the telescope, boy were we wrong. Why? We expected two strategies to work. First, that education and training would get people into jobs. Second, that what was called maximum feasible participation would together solve the intractable problem of a needy class.
The first mistake was to believe that raising human capital in and of itself would help people get work. As this country found, addressing welfare dependency through education and training failed miserably and led to the 1996 welfare reform, which put work first and helped reduced the welfare caseload by over 60 percent in 12 years.