Event Explores Roots of Poverty for Anniversary of LBJ’s Great Society Speech

Scholars and public policy professionals from across the nation gathered for a debate on Friday called “Organizing for Economic Democracy,” which touched on the historical, political and economic circumstances surrounding the “War on Poverty” of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency and discussed how President Barack Obama can continue this legacy.

Hosted at the Student Resource Building, the event featured an analysis of the history and legacy of the grassroots War on Poverty, with its inclusion of community action and civil organizations — such as groups for legal and human services — economic development, and current measurements of economic inequality. The symposium was comprised of three panels — “Community Action,” “Workplace Justice” and “Poverty Law and Legal Services” — and speakers included professors from Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania, UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, as well as directors from the California Rural Legal Assistance and the Los Angeles Community Action Center.

According to history professor Alice O’Connor, who helped moderate the event, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech on the Great Society — which outlined policymaking for the welfare state and other key federal social services.

“Fifty years ago this month, Lyndon B. Johnson declared an unconditional war on poverty,” O’Connor said. “It was his first State of the Union Address. Important things happened as a result of the declaration, and important things continue to happen today.”

Such implications, according to O’Connor, were the focus of last Friday’s symposium. She called the progressive set of domestic programs outlined by former President Johnson’s Great Society an “amazingly expansive moment in the history of American Democracy.” The late-1960s policymaking project launched spending programs intended to provide, or at least address, national needs such as education, urban development and management, public transportation and medical care.

O’Connor said that the event aimed to discuss all these needs and issues as necessary and as part of one cohesive effort to combat poverty. She said the inclusion of all these directives is important to democracy because democratic governance should go beyond just protecting civil liberties.

“The idea behind our initiative is to recognize that the Great Society was not simply a kind of serial accumulation of separately tracked initiatives like this, but … that the dimensions of democracy meant something more than the all-important freedoms of speech and religious practice,” O’Connor said.

Annelise Orleck, the first speaker and a professor of history at Dartmouth College, said poverty can be mediated when those enduring poor economic conditions are given a voice. As part of Orleck’s discussion, she drew focus to the experiences of poor African American mothers living in Las Vegas during the 1960s — such as Ruby Duncan, a ninth grade-educated mother on welfare who became a community activist after realizing her local government was failing to meet the basic needs of the community.

Duncan’s political efforts eventually reached the federal level, when she was on the President’s Commission on Family during the 1980s, as well as on the First Lady’s Commission on Community Development. She regularly advocated the interests of the American working class and low-income families. While speaking highly of Duncan’s far-reaching influence and activism, Orleck said this sort of expansive political influence is less likely in today’s world.

“This idea of the discussion taking place from the very bottom to the very top levels of American politics is something we can’t even imagine anymore,” Orleck said.

The next speaker, Founder and Co-Director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network — or LA-CAN — Pete White, discussed the idea of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” He presented a video portraying the current state of poverty in urban Los Angeles and the violence that often accompanies efforts to combat it. Despite the dangers of politically combating such extreme conditions, White said LA-CAN’s goal is to attack poverty.

“They are willing to go to jail for what is right,” White said. “They are willing to die, in many respects, to ensure that equity happens in our lifetime.”

The final portion of the symposium was spearheaded by Professor Clare Pastore of the University of Southern California Gould School of Law and Executive Director José Padilla of California Rural Legal Assistance, or CRLA, a nonprofit that offers free legal assistance to over 40,000 of California’s rural poor each year. Padilla said CRLA provides legal services, with a focus on systematic aid so as to protect individuals in the workforce in a way that will create “systematic change.” According to Padilla, his organization draws a large amount of government scrutiny because of its “controversial” nature and the fact that it deals with so many different cases.

“The reality is that poverty is political. If you push the envelope, you will be controversial and be pursued by the government,” Padilla said. “Because of that, we are the most audited legal aid firm because we pursue so many different cases in so many different sectors.”

According to O’Connor, the War on Poverty is largely weakened by the fact that many low-income Americans and others who suffer poor economic or social conditions do not necessarily have adequate civil rights in the first place. However, O’Connor said organizations such as the CRLA are able to advocate for these individuals when they would otherwise have no other political or legal options.

“I like to call the War on Poverty ‘The Forgotten War,’” O’Connor said. “The CRLA is one of those organizations where you can see not only lawyers on one side, but also how they make the law work for people who have had no rights.”

Presented by the UCSB Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, Friday’s event was the first symposium of this year’s “Critical Issues in America” series.


A version of this story appeared on page 3 of Monday, February 3, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.