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New research examines former President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative in the 1960s and its legacy in American cities.
In an article in the Journal of Urban History, historian Claire Dunning argues that New Careers, one of Johnson’s lesser-known anti-poverty programs, and the theory behind it contributed to the growth of the nonprofit sector across the United States, but also perpetuated inequality in urban areas. It’s a lesson, Dunning says, that should not be forgotten.
“When we look at the landscape of employment in cities today and the entrenched inequality based on race, gender, and income, we need to recognize that those problems are a direct result of past policy,” says Dunning, a postdoctoral scholar at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, who is also working on a book that will analyze federal anti-poverty policy from 1950 to the present.
“History is an incredibly useful tool to remind us that the present situation is, in large part, the result of turning a myth about work and the American dream—that if you just secure a job and work hard, you’ll do better economically—into policy.”
New Careers, which existed between the mid-1960s and early 1970s, awarded grants to a large swath of nonprofit sector organizations, which included large hospitals and schools, as well as small community daycares and health clinics, to create new human services positions for local workers who lacked professional training.
“…the idea that these jobs would grow quite naturally into careers is pie-in-the-sky hopes.”
Dunning’s research shows that while New Careers created between 250,000 and 400,000 nonprofessional jobs, according to some estimates, it also inspired a wider approach to creating entry-level jobs in the human services fields. Those jobs—predominantly taken by African-African and Latina women who were typically excluded from contemporary job programs designed for men, like manufacturing—were low wage and without the promised career advancement that eager officials advertised, Dunning says.