Politics of blaming the poor: Why it’s still Lyndon Johnson’s America

Jan 28, 2014

Sometimes it seems that little has changed. As a frustrated President Obama prepares to deliver the State of the Union address, it is important to underscore that income inequality and social justice are no less intertwined right now than they were fifty years ago, when President Lyndon Johnson spoke to the nation about matters of economy. In his speech of January 20, 1964, he stressed equality of opportunity, noting that a country as advanced as America should not ignore its millions of poor citizens, a disproportionate number of whom were non-white.  “Deficiencies of education and health and continuing job discrimination depress the earnings of Negroes, and other non-whites, throughout their lives,” the president said soberly.  “The fight to end discrimination requires constructive action by all governments and citizens to make sure–in practice as well as in principle–that all Americans have equal opportunities for education, for good health, for jobs, and for decent housing.”

LBJ had seen his share of rural poverty. He was trained as a Texas school teacher before entering politics as a Roosevelt liberal. Growing up in the sharecropping South, he understood that the free market did not guarantee freedom for everyone. He decided at an early age, he said, that “I was not going to be the victim of a system which would allow the price of a commodity like cotton to drop from forty cents to six cents and destroy the homes of people like my own family.” 

In January 1964, a clear majority of citizens–68 percent according to polling–were behind him in his fight. Southern Democrats and southern Republicans made up most of the other 32 percent. Their states were the poorest, but their elected representatives didn’t seem to mind. read more