Willard Wirtz, R.I.P.: Revisiting the Ghosts of the War on Poverty

Willard Wirtz represents one of the great what-ifs of American social policy history.

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

3 thoughts on “Willard Wirtz, R.I.P.: Revisiting the Ghosts of the War on Poverty”

  1. My suspicion was always that community action was strangled by unfriendly local politicians whose turf control was challenged, and finished off by the Nixon Administration because, well, because it was Nixon.

  2. I am not a scholar of this sort of thing, but I did read what I felt was an excellent book on how *not* to do things, by Tamar Jacoby. It was a history of the early years of affirmative action programs, mostly I think from an Anglo point of view. The title is escaping me just now – it might have been "Someone Else's House."

    As I recall, it was basically about how many white people were easily scared and generally freaked out by having to deal with other people's legitimate anger about centuries of bad things, for which the white individuals involved were usually not to blame, exactly. This set up all the tragic overreactions that followed, and are still happening — white flight etc. Anger is scary, legitimate anger is even scarier, and it's all bad when the anger isn't channeled productively.

    So, if we ever do have a real jobs program in this country (I have my doubts), whoever runs it might want to read that. There is a section about jobs programs. The topic of who gets trained to do what, or not, and why — it's fascinating. I also have an instinctive, perhaps slightly unfounded suspicion when I hear "jobs program," because I always think they will be for jobs in male-dominated professions (read: anything that pays a living wage…) Love to be proven wrong of course.

    I naturally don't agree with everything she writes in her ed pieces, but I like her anyway. You can tell she actually cares about something besides what most people on the right usually seem to focus on — money, hating, control of women's bodies.

  3. "for which the white individuals involved were usually not to blame, exactly."

    Where "not to blame, exactly" is more like, "not to blame, at all, by any conventional understanding of the word "blame".

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