Urban Wire Research's role in the War on Poverty: A Q&A with William Gorham, founding president of the Urban Institute
Serena Lei
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When Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty 50 years ago, the federal government was not equipped to measure existing poverty programs, much less untried strategies. The Urban Institute was launched to fill that gap, connecting scholars to decisionmakers. William Gorham, Urban’s founding president, who led the institute from 1968 to 2000, talks about the early years of the War on Poverty.

Q: What was your reaction to President Johnson’s speech committing to an “unconditional war on poverty”?

Gorham: Lifting the economic prospects of poor Americans was a grand idea and a promise. Unfortunately, in retrospect, the big news about that war is that we didn’t have one. However, a number of promising programs were launched and virtually hundreds were legislated by Congress but not funded. The War on Poverty was a fiscal victim of the Vietnam War.

Since there was no chance of funding the dream that we can have guns and butter, attention shifted to funding programs that appeared to be effective, such as Head Start, and fishing for others that might be candidates for startup support. That was difficult inasmuch as there was scant reliable information on outcomes on most antipoverty programs.

In the fall of 1965, when I transferred from the Defense Department to what was then HEW [the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare], and is now HHS, to start the planning and evaluation division, I interviewed the directors of each of HEW’s programs to learn what sort of information and data they collected on their effectiveness. None of the programs collected data on this impact. How the devil were we going to separate the wheat from the chaff so that we could know how to allocate our limited funds? We needed data to do our jobs.

Flash to a piece of luck. The assistant secretaries of HEW review and may comment on any proposed legislation that originated in the department. The final item in proposed legislation was titled “Administration.” This struck me as a virtual “answer to a maiden’s prayer.” The legislation was an amendment to a larger legislative item that extended and expanded child health benefits for low-income families. There was no evaluation specified under the administration section. I drafted a proposed short addition: “1 percent of all funds appropriated for this extended program shall be made available to the Secretary of HEW for purposes of evaluation.”

This was approved by the director of the Bureau of the Budget—now OMB—and then sent for the White House's signature. Charlie Schultze, then head of BOB, said he liked the idea and would add it to all future domestic legislation while he was still in office. Thus, the door to federal program evaluation was opened and funded.

Q: How did the War on Poverty contribute to the founding of the Urban Institute?

Why did Joe Califano [LBJ’s special assistant for domestic affairs ] suggest that maybe we should create an organization like the RAND Corporation, addressed to domestic programs and policies, independent of the government, outside of the government, with lots of freedom in selecting their agenda? And why would President Johnson say yes?

Well, for one thing, he had just declared the War on Poverty and such an institution devoted to domestic policy would be consistent with his domestic war, especially as he may have been expecting another war—in Vietnam. (Side note: I was acting assistant secretary of manpower when General Westmoreland briefed the senior staff on his plan to win the war against Vietnam with an additional 200,000 troops.)

The second reason may have been his showing his interest in quelling the urban riots by creating a domestically oriented think tank to address urban problems and their roots.

An in-house committee under the leadership of Arthur Okun, chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, was set up to advise the president on whether or not a new think tank addressing domestic policy and programs was advisable. A positive report was sent to President Johnson after about six months of consideration. A founder’s committee of distinguished outsiders was appointed by the president under the chairmanship of Arjay Miller, the former president of the Ford Motor Company and dean of Stanford's Graduate School of Business. Their assignment was to select a president and location, write a charter, and incorporate the new institution.

I met with the founders in March 1965 and they asked me, “If you were selected as president, what would your subject matter priorities be?” I said, “Programs and policy evaluation. It would start with housing entitlements and would eventually extend to other major domestic programs and policies, excluding environmental programs. The rate of growth will, of course, be determined by success in raising funds.”

And that institution became the Urban Institute.

Q: Looking ahead to the next 50 years, if we’re ever going to make a dent in poverty or income inequality, what would have to change?

Only God knows.


Photo: Urban Institute founding president Bill Gorham (left) and President Lyndon B. Johnson

Research Areas Economic mobility and inequality
Tags Poverty Welfare and safety net programs Social Security