Lesson Plans

A Reappraisal of the War on Poverty

Subject Area:  20th century U.S. history, Great Society, Civil Rights Movement, Welfare Rights Movement, African-American activism, Women activism.

Author: Doris Brossard, PhD student in history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.

Lesson Description: This lesson offers a reappraisal of the War on Poverty. Using recent scholarship on the subject, it examines the War on Poverty in the larger context of President Johnson’s Great Society, as well as the legacy of the War on Poverty in the 1970s and early 1980s. The main argument of this lesson is that while the War on Poverty was based on a conservative vision of poverty, it nonetheless created radical opportunities for poor people and had a long-lasting effect. Focusing on the War on Poverty and its legacy allows teachers and students to highlight continuities in activism between the Civil Right Movement and the War on Poverty, as well as the Welfare Rights Movement. It provides a more nuanced vision of the 1970s and the 1980s, showing that several programs from the War on Poverty and the Great Society survived during these two decades, despite the conservative antiwelfare rhetoric of the time. Finally, this lesson introduces students to groups of activists who are often less visible in the traditional narrative of activism in the 1960s: low-income women, African-American women, and single mothers on welfare.

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