The "war on poverty" and me

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.

This piece originally appeared in a National Reveiw Online symposium entitled, "The War on Poverty at 50." See also Mike Petrilli's and Mitch Pearlstein's contributions.

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