Since the moment Lyndon Johnson declared unconditional war on poverty in January 1964, the antipoverty efforts organized under his martial metaphor have been a topic of hot debate. Surprisingly, though, the least contentious aspect of the War on Poverty has often been the conclusions of its critics. For years, both political commentators and historians from either end of the political spectrum have denounced the War on Poverty as either the misguided effort of an overzealous federal state or a coy liberal diversion aimed at quelling radical dissent. Indeed, one of the few conclusions that critics from the left and right can generally agree upon, it seems, is that in the U.S. government’s war on poverty, poverty won. [End Page 322]
Recently, however, historians examining the War on Poverty from the perspective of low-income people have begun to amend this conclusion. The consensus emerging from this new scholarship has not been that poverty was defeated in the mid-to-late 1960s, but rather that the countless numbers of low-income people who participated in the federal government’s attempt to battle poverty were often politicized—and in many cases empowered—by the experience. This compilation provides an excellent and timely showcase of this new interpretation, presenting many of the case studies for the first time.
Orleck and Hazirjian organize the essays into four thematic sections, emphasizing the authors’ emphasis on conflicts over community action, women’s activism, the civil rights movement, and evolving ideologies of community development. The result is an edited volume that, like the best of the genre, synthesizes and disaggregates to similarly successful degrees. Some issues, like conflict emerging from disconnects in the priorities and politics of government officials and low-income people, resonate across the essays. For example, this theme is not only evident in Baltimore, where Rhonda Williams highlights the friction between government-run social services programs and the desire of low-income people for self-determination, but also in Houston, where Wesley Phillips outlines a political agenda that, at the grassroots, expanded far beyond the moderate liberalism of the Great Society. But because this book is an anthology and not a monograph, the importance of local context in these issues remains in the foreground. In particular, essays like Marc Rodriguez’s chapter on Tejanos in Milwaukee point to this significance by highlighting how community action not only prompted, but also often required, a reconfiguration of the community itself.
Although the collection is generally devoted to the efforts by low-income people to take advantage of the War on Poverty, some essays do offer interpretative diversity. Readers of the Register will no doubt be especially interested in Thomas Kiffmeyer’s contribution, “Looking Back to the City in the Hills: The Council of the Southern Mountains and a Longer View of the War on Poverty in the American [End Page 323] South, 1913-1970.” Whereas most authors in the collection initiate their investigations by posing the question of how studying grassroots participation in antipoverty efforts might reshape the conclusion that the War on Poverty was a failure, Kiffmeyer asks why, in Appalachia, it failed. In part, he argues, low-income Appalachians rejected the War on Poverty because, unlike New Deal reforms, Great Society programs tended to privilege cultural and quality-of-life issues over increased employment and infrastructure improvements. Just as importantly, Kiffmeyer points to the long history of paternalistic reformers who contributed to a pernicious “othering” of the region that local people recognized and resented. Appalachian people rejected War on Poverty programs, Kiffmeyer concludes, because they viewed them as merely the newest examples of outsiders attempting to reshape the region.
There is little to criticize about this collection as a whole. The most we can suggest is that other historians read this work, take its questions and methods to heart, and get to work producing the next round of scholarship on the War on Poverty. Coming at a time when poverty encroaches upon even greater...