Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks to Assistant and Regional Directors of the Office of Economic Opportunity.

October 23, 1968

Mr. Perrin, Assistant Directors, Regional Directors, and my friends:

It has been nearly 5 years since we went to the country and declared a national policy to try to eradicate poverty in this land that we all love so much.

Those were exciting days. We were aroused by the specter of poverty amid such great wealth. We were caught up in the idea that we had the power at long last to help every citizen share in our abundance.

And here were the dimensions of that problem:

--We had children who were already marked by failure by the time they got to the first grade.

--We had young boys and girls who had already known failure before they ever got to their teens.

--We had heads of families who never brought home a steady paycheck. Many of them represented a third generation already on relief.

--We had millions of retired people who knew only the tyranny of poverty in what was supposed to have been their golden years.

These were the people behind the statistics--the human story behind 35 million poor Americans. And here are the campaign ribbons that you and I have earned during the past 5 years.

We have moved 7 million Americans out of poverty. That is 2 1/2 times the number that moved out during the previous 5 years. I am told this is the fastest rate in all of our history.

Second, we have enlisted an army of 500,000 volunteers to give us the brains and the muscle to get the job done.

Third, we have sent 2 million preschoolers through Head Start.

Fourth, we have taken over 2 million unskilled, untrained young men and women and tried to teach them a skill.

Fifth, we have turned the entire economy loose--including private industry--on the biggest manhunt in our history to find the hard-core unemployed in our teeming ghettos, to hire them, to train them, and to retrain them.

Sixth, we have finally sliced a bigger piece of prosperity for all of our older citizens by Medicare. And we have given them the biggest increases in social security benefits since social security was enacted in Franklin Roosevelt's time.

There are no headlines in these victories. They don't run a television special on a young man who graduates from the Job Corps. They don't even write a feature story when thousands of young people sign up for VISTA. You hear a lot about the mistakes. God knows we have made them and made plenty of them, because we were unafraid to break new ground.

We have trusted some people who didn't deserve that trust. We have expected people to be loyal. Sometimes they weren't. But you seldom hear about the day-to-day results that have come from the patient and dedicated efforts of loyal, good Americans.

All of you have the greatest reward, though, I think, when you are able to say, "I was there. I helped to change the lives of men and women for the better." And that work must go on.

There are still 27 million people living in poverty. That is the central fact that confronts every American who wants to improve the quality of American life.

Sometimes they tell us in election year, "Tell it as it is." Well, there it is, regardless of the kind of politics you preach--whether you preach the new politics, or the old politics, the politics of confrontation or whatever-you-want-to-call-it .politics. So, there are two jobs, really, as I see it, that lie ahead that will face the man who will sit in the chair that I occupy on January 21.

First, he will have to sustain what we have begun. He will have to make sure that those who have crossed the poverty line are not allowed to be neglected and slip back.

Second, he will have to chip away at the remaining 27 million--not 35 million. He will have to do it slowly, patiently, and relentlessly. The easy case histories are pretty much behind us.

When I took office in November 1963, I said we must continue. Now, after 5 years, that is still the best advice I can give you. We must continue.

Note: The President spoke at 12:37 p.m. in the Cabinet Room at the White House. In his opening words he referred to Robert Perrin, Deputy Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks to Assistant and Regional Directors of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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