From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime
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From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime

The Making of Mass Incarceration in America

Elizabeth Hinton

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From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime

The Making of Mass Incarceration in America

Elizabeth Hinton

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Co-Winner of the Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A Wall Street Journal Favorite Book of the Year
A Choice Outstanding Academic Title of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Favorite Book of the YearIn the United States today, one in every thirty-one adults is under some form of penal control, including one in eleven African American men. How did the "land of the free" become the home of the world's largest prison system? Challenging the belief that America's prison problem originated with the Reagan administration's War on Drugs, Elizabeth Hinton traces the rise of mass incarceration to an ironic source: the social welfare programs of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society at the height of the civil rights era."An extraordinary and important new book."
—Jill Lepore, New Yorker "Hinton's book is more than an argument; it is a revelation…There are moments that will make your skin crawl…This is history, but the implications for today are striking. Readers will learn how the militarization of the police that we've witnessed in Ferguson and elsewhere had roots in the 1960s."
—Imani Perry, New York Times Book Review

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In March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sent three bills to Congress that epitomized the federal government’s ambivalent response to the civil rights movement. The Housing and Urban Development Act subsidized private homes for low-income renters, the Voting Rights Act gave black Americans in the South the opportunity to participate in the electoral process as full citizens, and the Law Enforcement Assistance Act established a role for the federal government in local police operations. It was the apex of the civil rights revolution and a landmark year for liberal reform, with Job Corps, Head Start, and other community action programs up and running. In addition to launching these social welfare policies, Johnson told Congress “the Federal Government will henceforth take a more meaningful role in meeting the whole spectrum of problems posed by crime,” and ordered his fellow policymakers to begin a “thorough, intelligent, and effective war against crime.”1 Thus the beginning of the federal law enforcement program coincided with the height of progressive social change; from this point on, the focus of national punitive measures would be primarily directed at black Americans living in urban neighborhoods that had high rates of reported crime.
Unlike Johnson, President John F. Kennedy recognized the parallels between the demands the federal government confronted following the Civil War and the challenges that faced Kennedy’s own administration—even if the historical tendency to respond to the expansion of civil rights with punitive measures escaped him. At the centennial commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1962, Kennedy proclaimed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that the Reconstruction era was the most “impressive” chapter in American history. The president hailed not only the extension of citizenship and the franchise to black men during this period but also the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other federal social programs that sought to foster racial equality and socioeconomic opportunity for 4 million former slaves by providing access to food, clothing, and education. Roughly a century later, as the United States increasingly preached freedom abroad but had failed to “eradicate the vestiges of discrimination and segregation” at home, Kennedy hoped his administration would “move to complete the work begun by Abraham Lincoln,” by “fully emancipating” the descendants of enslaved Africans, who were “not yet freed from the bonds of injustice.” Five months after his address, as part of his pledge to “fulfill finally the promise of the Declaration of Independence,” Kennedy became the first American president to commit to desegregation when he sent the Civil Rights Act of 1963 to Congress.2
That legislation would eventually bring an end to Jim Crow, but it did little to address the impact of centuries of racism and structural discrimination. Although characterized by the expansion of the middle class, the decades after World War II witnessed slow economic growth, frequent recessions, and the displacement of untrained and unskilled labor through automation. These developments hit African Americans harder than they hit the rest of the U.S. population, and the numbers of black citizens unable to secure a decent living rapidly grew during the postwar period. In 1940, black and white Americans experienced comparable levels of unemployment, at 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively. By the 1960s, these figures had diverged significantly: unemployment rates of African Americans were more than double those of their white counterparts. The AFL-CIO estimated that at just 12 percent of the total U.S. population, black workers represented some 36 percent of long-term, or “relatively permanent,” unemployed Americans.3
Declining job prospects for African Americans during the second half of the twentieth century exacerbated segregation and poverty in the neighborhoods where displaced southern agricultural workers congregated.4 As 2 million white residents left cities for suburban areas, 1.5 million black Americans migrated to industrial centers in the North and West, joined by Latinos and white Appalachians, and moved into the neighborhoods previously occupied by European immigrants and their children. By the early 1960s, 31 percent of African Americans lived in twelve northern cities, their living conditions characterized by the isolation, marginalization, and exclusion that stemmed from segregation.5
Policymakers and public figures worried about the concentrations of African American citizens in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and St. Louis, where African Americans represented at least a third of the total population, and in the nation’s capital, where African Americans were already a majority. “The building up of a mass of unemployed and frustrated Negro youth in congested areas of a city is a social phenomenon that may be compared to the piling up of inflammable material in an empty building on a city block,” Harvard’s president-emeritus James B. Conant told a group of federal policymakers and businessmen at a conference on unemployed, out-of-school urban youth in May 1961. Conant went on to describe this demographic as “social dynamite,” a phrase that was picked up by the mainstream press to generate support for new federal programs intended to remedy the situation. “The growing hard core of those in urban communities,” the nationally syndicated columnist Ralph McGill warned, “are, indeed, potential social dynamite … requiring emergency attention.” For Kennedy officials too, the lack of jobs available to black urban youth was “potentially the most dangerous social condition in America today,” as Secretary of Labor Arthur J. Goldberg put it in the spring of 1961.6 President Kennedy hoped the radical new social programs his administration developed that targeted low-income urban African Americans would effectively defuse the “social dynamite” before it exploded into chaos.
Kennedy and his advisors recognized the limitations of civil rights laws alone to address historical inequality. Acknowledging the shortcomings of his own proposed civil rights legislation, Kennedy argued before Congress in 1963: “There is little value in a Negro’s obtaining the right to be admitted to hotels and restaurants if he has no cash in his pocket and no job.” In the tradition of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which the federal government established in 1865 to foster the inclusion of former slaves in public institutions and improve social conditions in the former confederate states, Kennedy called for a “massive upgrading” of public schools and created programs that would stimulate literacy; provide vocational training programs; and improve access to secondary education, health care, and public benefits.7 These measures would focus explicitly on African Americans and other groups who had been largely excluded from Social Security provisions and the federal housing and education programs that primarily benefited white veterans and their families under the New Deal and the terms of the GI Bill.
Instead of implementing various job training, education, and equal opportunity programs as such, the Kennedy administration framed its urban social programs as antidelinquency measures. In the spring of 1961, Kennedy convened the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, chaired by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and including the secretaries of Labor and Health, Education, and Welfare and a selected group of advisors. With funding and broad discretion under the terms of the Youth Offenses Control Act of 1961, the President’s Committee focused its programs almost explicitly on black youth, emphasized prevention as a key goal in controlling crime, and included social scientists in policy discussions.
The Kennedy administration’s delinquency prevention programs departed significantly from previous initiatives at all levels of government and laid the groundwork for the social welfare and community uplift programs that the Johnson administration went on to initiate. Among other novel social programs the President’s Committee developed, its early childhood education and manpower development programs evolved into Head Start and the Job Corps during Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” Whereas the Kennedy administration launched these social welfare measures as crime control initiatives, Johnson presented his administration’s attempt to suppress the “social dynamite” in African American urban neighborhoods as a larger, more expansive fight against poverty.
Yet in a moment of possibility for both racial and economic justice, the unprecedented changes at the federal level that were born during the launch of the War on Poverty and the enactment of civil rights legislation created a seedbed for an increasingly punitive orientation in domestic urban policy. Amid a growing civil rights movement, at a time when scientific racism had been discredited and public racism was no longer tolerated, the widely accepted view that cultural and behavioral deficiencies—what leading social scientists called “social pathology”—caused poverty emerged as an intellectual framework through which policymakers launched a major national urban intervention. By articulating urban problems through the discourse of this perceived pathology, policymakers presented inequality as a problem of individual behavior. Federal officials and planners believed that consciously addressing the impact of racial discrimination within African American communities would reduce the structural dimensions of poverty, but this approach removed fundamental socioeconomic change from the domestic policy agenda. In other words, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations aimed to change the psychological impact of racism within individuals rather than the impact of the long history of racism within American institutions.
Although the federal government’s new commitment to racial minorities and the poor started out with sincere intentions, the notions of black cultural pathology that concealed policymakers’ own racism prevented their vision for a more egalitarian America from achieving its larger aims. Highly flawed in their intellectual foundations and design, the policies of the 1960s that created a new role for the federal government at the local level left open the possibility that the only way to manage the problems facing urban centers was to aid law enforcement authorities who were charged with the task of keeping segregated urban communities under control.
This punitive turn in domestic policy did not emerge out of nowhere. The programs of the New Frontier and the Great Society were never independent from federal policymakers’ desire for social control, or from their concerns about crime. An effort to combat inequality that the Kennedy administration framed as a youth crime control intervention evolved into a more comprehensive effort that sought to “eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty” via the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Together, the earlier antidelinquency and antipoverty programs set the precedent for the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965, legislation that marked the beginnings of a more lasting War on Crime. These entangled antipoverty and crime control measures further reinforced the idea, rooted in policymakers’ own assumptions about the fundamental causes of black poverty and crime, that conditions in low-income neighborhoods were the result of individuals’ shortcomings rather than structural factors. As a result of these assumptions, the White House and Congress sought to monitor and regulate the behavior of individuals in order to change that behavior and, in the process, fight poverty and the scourge of American racism with civil rights reform. The legislation federal policymakers enacted in earnest over the course of the 1960s moved domestic programs further and further away from fostering fundamental changes in American social and economic institutions that might have eradicated the poverty and segregation in black communities.
Thus the War on Poverty is best understood not as an effort to broadly uplift communities or as a moral crusade to transform society by combating inequality or want, but as a manifestation of fear about urban disorder and about the behavior of young people, particularly young African Americans. The Youth Offenses Control Act of 1961, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, and the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 represented the federal government’s tepid answer to the civil rights movement and the fact that policymakers could no longer ignore the material consequences of historical inequality as these consequences had developed in the century after Emancipation.


On May 11, 1961, the same day President Kennedy established by executive order the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, he sent to Congress a bill that would begin an unprecedented level of federal involvement in areas that policymakers had begun referring to as the “inner city.” Vague in its language and ambitious in its call for a “total attack” on delinquency, the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act of 1961 sought to address the problems of “youth unemployment, poor housing, poor health, inadequate education, and the alienation of lower-class communities and neighborhoods,” as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy explained. He and other federal policymakers believed that the racial discrimination black families confronted within school systems and workplaces was the root cause of this “alienation.” The preamble to the act itself argued that “delinquency and offenses occur disproportionately among school dropouts, unemployed youth faced with limited opportunities and with employment barriers, and youth in deprived family situations.”8 As a result, the national antidelinquency program would focus on youth who had come into contact with law enforcement or criminal justice authorities, as well as groups of young people whom federal policymakers believed to be susceptible to delinquency.
In late September, Kennedy signed the legislation into law, and the committee could then begin planning and supporting antidelinquency programs in major urban centers. With an initial allocation of $10 million a year for three years, the act supported demonstration projects (highly experimental programs that, if proven effective, would be administered on a national scale), a major training measure for social service personnel, and general assistance to local organizations and governments. In order for their areas to qualify for funding, municipal authorities needed to form separate nonprofit organizations with welfare professionals, juvenile courts, churches, and other local institutions to collaborate on grant proposals. This strict planning process both made youth crime control a local priority and unified law enforcement and social welfare services. Because the act had established a direct channel between the federal government and local organizations, the President’s Committee had a strong degree of oversight over the planning and implementation of programs.
Almost immediately after World War II, when the “teenager” emerged as a formidable political and cultural category, state and local governments began to enact delinquency policies that expanded the surveillance of black urban youth. Urban police departments from New York City to Houston started to increase patrol in targeted low-income neighborhoods as a means to control unruly teens. Juvenile delinquency programs in Oakland, for instance, brought police officers into public schools to monitor and arrest youth identified as “troublemakers” by school and social service staff. The Oakland Police Department aggressively enforced misdemeanors—both on and off school grounds—just as it began to offer recreational programs for this same group of “troublesome” young residents. As a result of such antidelinquency measures in Oakland, Houston, New York City, and other urban centers with concentrations of African American youth, the number of young people who were under some form of criminal justice supervision nationwide grew 2.5 times between 1949 and 1957.9
At the federal level, concern about juvenile delinquency emerged alongside changing racial demographics in American cities and increasing media coverage of youth crime. As the number of African Americans in the North continued to rise, the 70 million “baby boomers” born after 1947 were beginning to transition from childhood to adolescence. In 1957, the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency formed to examine the youth crime problem as a first step toward national action. Although policymakers continued to let state and local governments control young offenders independently from federal authority during the 1950s, by the time Kennedy took office in 1961, juvenile delinquency had become generally understood as “a national problem calling for national action,” particularly in the low-income urban centers that distressed White House officials the most.10
Even as the Kennedy administration and Congress endorsed new urban interventions in the name of fighting delinquency, youth crime was more of a moral concern rooted in long-held racial fears than it was a measurable problem. The most reliable sources on delinquency trends during this period come from the FBI and the Children’s Bureau, yet each organization used different methods of reporting, making it difficult to accurately determine the extent of delinquency in the nation or whether or not the problem was in fact increasing. Crime data indicated that juvenile arrest rates were rising in the 1960s, but this was a result of the evolution and modernization of data-gathering methods more than a reflection of actual changes. Moreover, although a number of federal researchers pointed out that youth crime was common across ...