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Perspectives of US Presidents on Poverty

Grades 9-12 | Historical Analysis | Source-Based

Source Lexile®: 1070L-1360L

Learning Standards




Prompt: Read the following presidential speeches regarding poverty in America. The first speech was given by President Lyndon B. Johnson during his State of the Union Address on January 8, 1964. The second speech was given by President Ronald Reagan during his Radio Address to the Nation on Welfare Reform on February 15, 1986.


After reading each of the two speeches, write an essay analyzing each president's views on poverty in America. In your analysis, make a claim that evaluates each president's statements regarding the role that government should play in terms of providing assistance to its citizens by assessing each president's claims, reasoning, and evidence. Remember to use textual evidence from both texts to support your analysis.



Source 1

State of the Union Address (excerpt) (Primary Source)

by President Lyndon B. Johnson

January 8, 1964


"But by closing down obsolete installations, by curtailing less urgent programs, by cutting back where cutting back seems to be wise, by insisting on a dollar's worth for a dollar spent, I am able to recommend in this reduced budget the most federal support in history for education, for health, for retraining the unemployed, and for helping the economically and the physically handicapped.


This budget, and this year's legislative program, are designed to help each and every American citizen fulfill his basic hopes—his hopes for a fair chance to make good; his hopes for fair play from the law; his hopes for a full-time job on full-time pay; his hopes for a decent home for his family in a decent community; his hopes for a good school for his children with good teachers; and his hopes for security when faced with sickness or unemployment or old age.


Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope—some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.


This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.


It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.


Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the state and the local level and must be supported and directed by state and local efforts.


For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.


The program I shall propose will emphasize this cooperative approach to help that one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs.


Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them.


Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.


But whatever the cause, our joint federal-local effort must pursue poverty, pursue it wherever it exists—in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or in migrant worker camps, on Indian Reservations, among whites as well as Negroes, among the young as well as the aged, in the boom towns and in the depressed areas.


Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it. No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice.


We will launch a special effort in the chronically distressed areas of Appalachia.


We must expand our small but our successful area redevelopment program.


We must enact youth employment legislation to put jobless, aimless, hopeless youngsters to work on useful projects.


We must distribute more food to the needy through a broader food stamp program.


We must create a National Service Corps to help the economically handicapped of our own country as the Peace Corps now helps those abroad.


We must modernize our unemployment insurance and establish a high-level commission on automation. If we have the brainpower to invent these machines, we have the brainpower to make certain that they are a boon and not a bane to humanity.


We must extend the coverage of our minimum wage laws to more than two million workers now lacking this basic protection of purchasing power.


We must, by including special school aid funds as part of our education program, improve the quality of teaching, training, and counseling in our hardest hit areas.


We must build more libraries in every area and more hospitals and nursing homes under the Hill-Burton Act, and train more nurses to staff them.


We must provide hospital insurance for our older citizens financed by every worker and his employer under Social Security, contributing no more than $1 a month during the employee's working career to protect him in his old age in a dignified manner without cost to the Treasury, against the devastating hardship of prolonged or repeated illness.


We must, as a part of a revised housing and urban renewal program, give more help to those displaced by slum clearance, provide more housing for our poor and our elderly, and seek as our ultimate goal in our free enterprise system a decent home for every American family.


We must help obtain more modern mass transit within our communities as well as low-cost transportation between them.

Above all, we must release $11 billion of tax reduction into the private spending stream to create new jobs and new markets in every area of this land.


These programs are obviously not for the poor or the underprivileged alone. Every American will benefit by the extension of social security to cover the hospital costs of their aged parents. Every American community will benefit from the construction or modernization of schools, libraries, hospitals, and nursing homes, from the training of more nurses and from the improvement of urban renewal in public transit. And every individual American taxpayer and every corporate taxpayer will benefit from the earliest possible passage of the pending tax bill from both the new investment it will bring and the new jobs that it will create."



Source 2

Radio Address to the Nation on Welfare Reform (Primary Source)

by President Ronald Reagan

February 15, 1986


"My fellow Americans:


Today I'd like to speak to you about a gathering crisis in our society: It's a family crisis. To some it's hidden, concealed behind tenement walls or lost in the forgotten streets of our inner cities. But for millions of Americans, the crisis is ever present and growing, and it threatens to become a permanent scar on the American promise of hope and opportunity for all.


I'm talking about the crisis of family breakdowns, especially among the welfare poor, both black and white. In inner cities today, families, as we've always thought of them, are not even being formed. Since 1960 the percentage of babies born out of wedlock has more than doubled. And too often their mothers are only teenagers. They're children—many of them 15, 16, and 17 years old with all the responsibilities of grownups thrust upon them. The fathers of these children are often nowhere to be found. In some instances you have to go back three generations before you can find an intact family. It seems even the memory of families is in danger of becoming extinct. And what of the babies born out of wedlock, these children born to children. Statistically, we know that they're much more likely to have a low birth weight and, thus, serious health problems. We know that out-of-wedlock children often suffer abuse and neglect as well. And what sort of future can they look forward to?


The family is the most basic support system there is. For two centuries now, it's been families pulling together that has provided the courage, willpower, and sense of security that have enabled millions of Americans to escape poverty and grab hold of the rungs on the ladder of opportunity. How often have we heard about the immigrant father laboring long into the night to give his children the advantages he never had? How many self-made men and women in America of all ethnic backgrounds owe their success to the strength of character given them by hard-working, loving parents? But for the children of child mothers and absentee fathers, there is often only a deepening cycle of futility, hopelessness, and despair.


We're in danger of creating a permanent culture of poverty as inescapable as any chain or bond; a second and separate America, an America of lost dreams and stunted lives. The irony is that misguided welfare programs instituted in the name of compassion have actually helped turn a shrinking problem into a national tragedy. From the 1950's on, poverty in America was declining. American society, an opportunity society, was doing its wonders. Economic growth was providing a ladder for millions to climb up out of poverty and into prosperity. In 1964 the famous War on Poverty was declared and a funny thing happened. Poverty, as measured by dependency, stopped shrinking and then actually began to grow worse. I guess you could say, poverty won the war. Poverty won in part because instead of helping the poor, government programs ruptured the bonds holding poor families together.


Perhaps the most insidious effect of welfare is its usurpation of the role of provider. In States where payments are highest, for instance, public assistance for a single mother can amount to much more than the usable income of a minimum wage job. In other words, it can pay for her to quit work. Many families are eligible for substantially higher benefits when the father is not present. What must it do to a man to know that his own children will be better off if he is never legally recognized as their father? Under existing welfare rules, a teenage girl who becomes pregnant can make herself eligible for welfare benefits that will set her up in an apartment of her own, provide medical care, and feed and clothe her. She only has to fulfill one condition—not marry or identify the father.


Obviously something is desperately wrong with our welfare system. With only about half of what is now spent on welfare, we could give enough money to every impoverished man, woman, and child to lift them above the poverty line. Instead, we spend vast amounts on a system that perpetuates poverty. But the waste of money pales before the sinful waste of human potential--the squandering of so many millions of hopes and dreams.


In my State of the Union Address, I directed our administration to study the welfare system with a keen eye to making reforms. We already have in place a low-income assistance working group, which is hard at its task. In addition, I've instructed Attorney General Edwin Meese, as Chairman pro tern of our Domestic Policy Council, to convene a working group to evaluate the effect of a wide range of government programs on American families, especially poor families. These groups will report back to me by December 1st. The welfare tragedy has gone on too long. It's time to reshape our welfare system so that it can be judged by how many Americans it makes independent of welfare.


Until next week, thanks for listening. God bless you."








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