Category Archives: History

Looking back, sadly, at the War On Poverty

President Johnson visiting a poor rural Kentucky family several months after announcing his "War On Poverty."

President Johnson visiting a poor rural Kentucky family several months after announcing his “War On Poverty.”

In more than four decades as a professional journalist, I never had the experience of being a war correspondent. However, I did serve as a reporter in the War On Poverty.

It was 50 years ago this year that President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his “War On Poverty,” an extensive set of federal efforts meant to combat the curse of poverty in America’s city, suburban and rural areas.

This was a big deal for me. I had recently moved from being a sports reporter to the news side of things and wanted to see how such a sweeping, historic program would affect my newspaper’s circulation area.

So, along with a handful of fellow journalists, we set out to beat the bushes to find people and communities the War On Poverty would impact. We found plenty and dutifully interviewed, researched and then wrote about their plights and which “War” programs might best eliminate their woes.

So, how did that go?

In January, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers issued a “progress report” that was a jumble of conflicting statements. (One example: that “poverty in the U.S. when measured to include tax credits and other benefits has declined from 25.8% in 1967 to 16.0% in 2012. “ No mention of the three missing years – from when LBJ issued his “War” declaration in 1964 to the 1967 benchmark the Council decided to use.)

But, to me the telling paragraph in its report was this:

“The official poverty measure (OPM) has several flaws that distort our understanding of both the level of poverty and how it has changed over time. Perhaps the most significant problem with the OPM is its measure of family resources, based on pre-tax income plus cash transfers (like cash welfare, social security, or UI payments), but not taxes, tax credits, or non-cash transfers. As such it inhabits a measurement limbo between ‘market poverty’ (based on pre-tax, pre-transfer resources) and ‘post-tax, post transfer poverty’ reflecting well-being after taking into account the impact of policies directed at the poor. Several other shortcomings are more technical.”

Translated into everyday English, nobody can agree on how to measure or define poverty.

Another view of how LBJ’s dream is doing comes from The Daily Caller, a politically conservative news and opinion website. A story it published today is headlined: “Miscounting Poverty Again: The War On Poverty After Fifty Years.” As contributor Robert Rector writes (underlining has been added for emphasis):

“Today the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual poverty report. … [It] reported that 14.5% of Americans were poor in 2013. This is essentially the same rate as in 1966, two years after the War on Poverty was announced. According to Census, the country has made no real progress against poverty for more than 40 years.

“This lack of progress is remarkable. The government has spent some $22 trillion (in constant 2012 dollars) on means-tested welfare programs since the War on Poverty began. Adjusted for inflation, this is three times more than the nation has spent on all military wars combined since the American Revolution.

“Today the federal government runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs providing cash, food, housing, and medical care to poor and near poor Americans. Last year, more than 100 million people, or roughly one in three Americans, received aid from at least one of these programs. In Fiscal Year 2013, federal and state spending on these programs came to $943 billion or around $9,000 per recipient. (These figures do not include Social Security, Medicare, or Unemployment insurance.)

“Adjusting for inflation, annual welfare spending is 16 times greater today than when the War on Poverty began. How can government spend so much while the poverty rate remains unchanged? The answer is, it can’t. … “

If you want to read the rest of Rector’s analysis, you can find it here.

As for that young journalist back in 1964, he still had enough starry-eyed idealism that made him think his government could do great things, just as it had in galvanizing a nation to lead the battle to defeat Germany and Japan and their minions in World War II, then push this vast country into the modern era.

The former journalist of today knows better. And, that is a sad realization.

For a variety of blogs, guides and websites for readers of all interests, go to Bill


Let slip the dogs of August

So we have arrived at roughly mid-August, a much-anticipated yet often-maligned date on the calendar.

It marks the start of the major vacation period in America, yet it also marks the start of the “dog days” when humidity and temperatures vie for the highest numbers they can reach on the discomfort scale.

It marks the time when late-summer treats such as strawberries and melons begin appearing in our gardens in profusion, but it also marks the time of highest heat stress on our expensive lawns.

It tells us there still are 27 promising days left until that old killjoy, Labor Day, is upon us, but it also ushers in a time when merchants and the unimaginative among us begin to drone on about how close we are to the start of a new school year.

Historically, August 9 is a mixed bag sort of a day.

1173 — Construction of the campanile of the Cathedral of Pisa — now known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa — began, the start of a two-century building project.

1483 — The Sistine Chapel was opened in Rome.

1854 — Henry David Thoreau published “Walden.”

1936 — Jesse Owens won his fourth gold medal at the Olympic Games in Berlin.

1944 — Smokey the Bear made his first appearance, on posters released by the U.S. Forest Service and the Wartime Advertising Council.

1945 — The Japanese city of Nagasaki was obliterated by the second atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on the enemy country, three days after Hiroshima was the first atomic target.

1969 — Members of a cult led by Charles Manson brutally murdered pregnant actress Sharon Tate (wife of Roman Polanski), coffee heiress Abigail Folger, Polish actor Wojciech Frykowski, men’s hairstylist Jay Sebring and recent high-school graduate Steven Parent.

1971 — British security forces arrested hundreds of Northern Ireland nationalists and detained them without trial in the infamous Long Kesh prison. Twenty people died in the riots that followed.

1974 — Richard Nixon became the first President of the United States to resign from office.

1898 — The diesel internal combustion engine was issued a U.S. patent by 608,845.  The inventor was Rudolf Diesel.

2007 — The financial crisis of 2007-2008 emerged  when a liquidity crisis results from the subprime mortgage crisis

In the end, like any other day, today is what you make of it.

Hate the Census, hate your history

I’ve been an amateur geneaologist since long before it became an “in” thing. Tracking down my roots on both my father’s side (mainly Irish, but with a lot of other Celtic branches tossed in) and my mother’s (mainly English and Palatine German, with a smattering of Irish, Scottish and French for good measure) always fascinated me.

The research became more difficult as time passed and I became the older generation. No longer could I call on the family elders to explain an odd name or supply me with an anecdote that might explain a snippet of information I’d tracked down.

One of the most helpful sources of information over the years has been the U.S. census, conducted every 10 years. I’m disappointed that the current version requests far less information than those in the past, perhaps a response to what appears to be a growing public objection to giving personal information to government, even while the willingness to do so for anyone else through such social media as Facebook and Twitter might argue against that.

It was through such old records I have been able to ascertain the homeland of parents of various ancestors, the languages they spoke at home, what they did for a living, the non-family members who might have been living with them and how they were connected (boarder, servant, in-law, student, etc.), even who their neighbors were.

When I was very young, my step-great-grandfather lived with us. Like any child, I’d just assumed he was always there, not giving much thought to how he married into the family. An old census form solved that puzzle for me when it listed he and his wife of the time as living just three houses away from my family’s house in a small Pennsylvania town. As it turned out, the two families had been friends for years, and when both he and my great-grandmother lost their spouses, they eventually married.

Census records have not, of course, been my sole source of information. I also discovered various military records — from the French and Indian War right through today’s records — of relatives who lived here from well before the United States became a nation. Social Security death records, marriage and baptismal certificates, ship’s passenger manifests, property transfers and other family histories that intertwine with mine. … Add those to the volumes of foreign records I’ve researched for my pre-American ancestors, and I could have spent my entire life looking into my roots.

Despite the digitizing of records in most countries, the ubiquity of the Internet, the emergence of such subscription search services as and so on, the widespread public distrust of, and apathy for, our current census portends troubles for future amateur and professional geneaologists. Even though this year we were given a stripped-down form to fill out, ignoring it not only will hamper governmental planning, it will add to the burden of future generations looking for a picture of their past.

[Note: Published as an op-ed commentary in the Albany (NY) Times Union 04.16.10.]