The War on Poverty at 50: Education Edition

Wednesday marked the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the “War on Poverty.” To mark the milestone, National Review Online published an online symposium with a variety of conservative views about that War’s success and failures—and how best to fight a new War on Poverty going forward. Here are three contributions—by Fordham’s Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael J. Petrilli, and the Center of the American Experiment’s Mitchell B. Pearlstein—that focus on education’s role in alleviating poverty.

The "war on poverty" and me

By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Forgive an aging education-reformer’s reminiscences, but LBJ’s declaration of war on poverty shaped the next fifty years of my life.

I was a Harvard undergraduate at the time, dabbling in social reform and social action via a slew of student-volunteer programs in schools, settlement houses, public-housing projects, and hospitals; not studying very hard; and expected by my family to join my father and grandfather in their Dayton law firm.

Then two things happened.

Professor Edward Banfield brought into his course on “urban problems” a young assistant secretary of labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose enthusiastic explanation of the nascent “war” fired my imagination—and introduced the man who would later become my doctoral adviser, chief mentor, and source of three riveting jobs.

And Lyndon Johnson’s oft-stated conviction that education was the surest route to vanquishing poverty engaged both the do-gooder inclinations of a twenty-year-old and reflected what I was seeing among children in poor neighborhoods of Cambridge and Boston and the miserable schools they attended.

Between LBJ and Pat Moynihan, I now had a sense of mission. So I applied to the ed school instead of the law school. And on it went from there.

In retrospect, I have no career regrets, but I’ve also learned a ton about the limits of formal education (which makes up a relatively small part of a person’s life); about the difficulty of changing our major institutions; about the hazards of inflating what Uncle Sam, in particular, can do to bring about such changes; about the predilection of our politics to place adult interests ahead of children’s; and about poverty’s dogged capacity to defeat just about every intervention that a free society can devise.

In short, I became both an education reformer and a neoconservative (back in the days when that honorable term had more to do with domestic than foreign policy).

Older. Wiser (or at least chastened). Less confident—but still determined.

Can't buy me love

By Michael J. Petrilli

The so-called War on Poverty has been fantastically successful at eradicating poverty among the old and devastatingly miserable at eradicating poverty among the young. It’s not hard to see why. It’s easy to reduce or eliminate poverty among people, such as seniors, who are not expected to work: Give them money and free services, like Social Security and Medicare. Voilà, problem solved. What our young people require, however, is so much more. And it’s nothing a government program can provide.

What they need, first and foremost, are parents with the emotional stability, resources, and commitment to do their most important job well. That means making good decisions every day about what they will or won’t expect of their kids; the time they will or won’t spend with them; the books they will or won’t read to them; the experiences they will or won’t provide. It shouldn’t be controversial to say, then, that many poor parents struggle to make these good decisions, often because they themselves are still growing up and are trying to do the job alone.

If we want to reduce intergenerational poverty—the real social scourge in America—we need an all-out effort to encourage everyone to follow a simple rule: Don’t have kids until you are ready to provide for them, emotionally and financially.

That means taking children who are growing up today in dysfunctional families and dysfunctional communities, and often attending dysfunctional schools, and transporting them into environments that can, as President George W. Bush would say, “touch their hearts.” The most promising among these are schools of choice that prepare students academically and vocationally—so that they might see a future for themselves beyond the walls of poverty—but also emotionally, socially, and spiritually. These are schools of character and conviction, schools with a clear sense of moral purpose, that aren’t bashful about shaping kids’ characters and compasses.

Such schools should be measured by the degree to which their graduates are college- and career-ready, yes, but also fatherhood-ready and motherhood-ready. The true measure of the impact of education reform—or any other campaign in the War on Poverty—is whether it produces self-sufficient citizens who can build strong and healthy families for the next generation.

Reviving marriage to end poverty

By Mitchell B. Pearlstein

A long time ago now, the late syndicated columnist William Raspberry was in the Twin Cities for some kind of program and a woman asked a modest question: “How do you fix poverty?” Raspberry, who was a gracious Pulitzer Prize winner, said something about how poverty was a very big problem, and as such, one could jump in just about anywhere and make a contribution. But if he had to choose just one place, he said, he would start with the boys, which is exactly where I start, principally because boys become the men whom women don’t want to marry, and usually for very good reasons.

Or more precisely, I start where I do because unless we somehow revive marriage in America, particularly in inner cities, there isn’t a chance in the world of making more than tiny dents in poverty. Which leads to another modest question: How to bring marriage back in communities where it’s nearly dead?

Claiming that getting a good education is ultimately the best strategy might sound elementary to the point of trite. But what more promising route is out there, especially for millions of boys (and girls) who have a hole in their heart where their father (and sometimes their mother) should be? What type of education might work best at filling such gaps?

The adjectives that come quickest to mind are “paternalistic” and “nurturing.” “Paternalistic” suggests tough-loving charter schools in the “sweat the small stuff” spirit of KIPP academies, and “nurturing” suggests schools in which religious belief animates much.

I certainly don’t contend that a parochial school is a right option for everyone. But might such a school work well, sometimes wonderfully, for many? No question. Not only is the case for such schools strong in terms of academics, but vouchers to provide access to them are more promising than any other strategy I know for making measurable dents in poverty.

Mitch Pearlstein is the founder and president of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. His most recent book is From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation.

These pieces originally appeared in a National Reveiw Online symposium entitled "The War on Poverty at 50" and on Fordham's Flypaper blog.

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