Former Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz has died at 98. Wirtz was not only a great fighter for working people and the disadvantaged, as shown in the New York Times’ obituary, but he represents one of the great “what-ifs” of social policy history.
As Nicholas Lemann relates in his indispensable classic, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, during the formation of the War on Poverty, it was Wirtz who strongly advocated for centering social policy around jobs programs rather than services and vague notions of “Community Action.” LBJ eventually opted for the latter, in no small part because jobs programs were more expensive and money was needed for the Vietnam War. This was a horrid mistake: Community Action was a flop, and its failure contributed powerfully to the notion that government action to reduce poverty was bound to fail.
It is no small irony that Wirtz died in the midst of severe recession when economists and policy advocates are returning to the idea of massive government jobs programs as a way of combatting mass unemployment — even if we are still in the throes of bromides about doing it through tax cuts.
Had Wirtz’ vision been adopted, I believe that the War on Poverty would have had much greater success. Indeed, it would have been a war on poverty in the first place, instead of the massively oversold and horrifically underfunded set of Great Society programs that we eventually got. (As Lemann notes, the Office of Economic Opportunity’s largest annual budget was less than $2 billion under Richard Nixon in the early 1970’s. It was more like a Skirmish on Poverty.).
So we should not only remember what Wirtz did and tried to do, but also how tactical and strategic decisions at one point reverberate for years following.