As a part of the Great Society, Johnson's view of a federally directed application of resources to expand the government's role in social welfare programs from education to healthcare was a continuation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and Four Freedoms speech from the 1930s and 1940s.
The concept of a war on poverty waned after the 1960s. Deregulation, growing criticism of the welfare state, and an ideological shift to reducing federal aid to impoverished people in the 1980s and 1990s culminated in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, that Bill Clinton claimed "end[ed] welfare as we know it." Nonetheless, the legacy of the War on Poverty remains in the continued existence of such federal programs as Head Start and Job Corps.
The Office of Economic Opportunity was the agency responsible for administering most of the War on Poverty programs created during Johnson's Administration, including VISTA, Job Corps, Head Start, Legal Services and the Community Action Program. The OEO was established in 1964 and quickly became a target of both left-wing and right-wing critics of the War on Poverty. Directors of the OEO included Sargent Shriver, Bertrand Harding, and Donald Rumsfeld.
The OEO launched Project Head Start as an eight-week summer program in 1965. The project was designed to help end poverty by providing preschool children from low-income families with a program that would meet emotional, social, health, nutritional,and psychological needs. Head Start was then transferred to the Office of Child Development in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (later the Department of Health and Human Services) by the Nixon Administration in 1969.
President Johnson also announced a second project to follow children from the Head Start program. This was implemented in 1967 with Project Follow Through, the largest educational experiment ever conducted.
The policy trains disadvantaged and at-risk youth and has provided more than 2 million disadvantaged young people with the integrated academic, vocational, and social skills training they need to gain independence and get quality, long-term jobs or further their education. Job Corps continues to help 70,000 youths annually at 122 Job Corps centers throughout the country. Besides vocational training, many Job Corps also offer GED programs as well as high school diplomas and programs to get students into college.
President Johnson's "War on Poverty" speech was delivered at a time of recovery (the poverty level had fallen from 22.4% in 1959 to 19% in 1964 when the War on Poverty was announced) and it was viewed by critics as an effort to get the United States Congress to authorize social welfare programs. Some economists, including Milton Friedman, have argued that Johnson's policies actually had a negative impact on the economy because of their interventionist nature. Adherents of this school of thought recommend that the best way to fight poverty is not through government spending but through economic growth.
One common criticism of the war on poverty is the incentives that it creates. Specifically, critics claim that the welfare programs encourage illegitimacy and dependency, and that they discourage people from obtaining education and job skills. Some examples follow:
In the decade following the 1964 introduction of the war on poverty, poverty rates in the U.S. dropped to their lowest level to date: 11.1% . They have remained between 11 and 15.2% ever since. Since 1973 poverty has remained well below the historical U.S. averages in the range of 20-25%.
Poverty among Americans between ages 18-64 has fallen only marginally since 1966, from 10.5% then to 10.1% today. Poverty has significantly fallen among Americans under 18 years old from 23% in 1964 to 16.3% today. The most dramatic decrease in poverty was among Americans over 65, which fell from 28.5% in 1966 to 10.1% today.
In 2004, more than 35.9 million, or 12% of Americans including 12.1 million children, were considered to be living in poverty with an average growth of almost 1 million per year.
The OEO was dismantled by President Nixon in 1973, though many of the agency's programs were transferred to other government agencies.
According to the "Readers' Companion to U.S. Women's History",
Many observers point out that the War on Poverty's attention to Black America created the grounds for the backlash that began in the 1970s. The perception by the white middle class that it was footing the bill for ever-increasing services to the poor led to diminished support for welfare state programs, especially those that targeted specific groups and neighborhoods. Many whites viewed Great Society programs as supporting the economic and social needs of low-income urban minorities; they lost sympathy, especially as the economy declined during the 1970s.