Lesson 3 of 3
One 50-minute class period

Participation through Public Policy

From the Unit:

Learning Objectives

This lesson will help students:

  • Describe several programs associated with the War on Poverty.
  • Identify strategies and tactics Shriver used to get these programs implemented.
  • Identify obstacles Shriver faced sustaining these programs.
  • Define public policy.
  • Consider different approaches to using public policy to fight poverty.


There are many ways individuals and groups choose to influence their communities. One way is through working with government to shape and manage public policy. In this lesson, students will study how public policy was used to fight poverty in the 1960s.

In 1964, 30 million Americans lived in poverty. As part of his Great Society program, President Lyndon Johnson launched a War on Poverty and asked Sargent Shriver to direct this effort. Speaking about the challenge facing Shriver, Scott Stossel, author of Sarge: A Biography of Sargent Shriver, remarked:

If a general was asked, you know, I want you to launch a war on Grenada, could you invade it and take it over, well you know that’s something you can get your mind around. But, a war on poverty? That’s like saying could you...for all intents and purposes...wage war on gravity?1

Undeterred by the daunting task of launching a War on Poverty, when asked if poverty could be wiped out, Shriver answered unequivocally, “Yes I do. Very bad health care, very bad schools. That kind of poverty doesn’t need to exist today. It can be wiped out,” he argued.2 In the beginning of this lesson, students will see a short clip from the film when Shriver is asked to direct the War on Poverty and then they will have the opportunity “to offer him” advice.

Like any war general, Shriver’s decisions were guided by a coherent and explicit strategy. He firmly believed that the way to help people rise out of poverty was to help them help themselves. Professor James T. Fisher explains, “Shriver hated the idea of handouts, which he equated with what he called cheap grace—a kind of charity [that] does not empower people.”3 Describing his strategy for the War on Poverty, Shriver states, “This is no handout program. There are no giveaways in the War on Poverty. We’re investing in human dignity, not in doles.”4 While Shriver expressed a belief that individuals are capable of getting themselves out of poverty, he also argued that it is the government’s responsibility to provide services that help people in the effort to improve their lives. “Our idea was to discover ways in which people could be helped to help themselves,” he explained, thus outlining his strategy for leading the War on Poverty.5

One of the purposes of this lesson is to help students learn about different approaches to fighting poverty, and conducting public policy in general. The general population does not agree about the “proper” role for government and the individual when it comes to alleviating poverty. Most likely, your students’ views will not share the same beliefs either. Thus, a conversation about approaches to fighting poverty must be grounded in rules about respectful discourse. For some students, a discussion about poverty may be abstract and intellectual, while for others it might be concrete and visceral. An open, respectful classroom climate provides the safest space for students to share their experiences, opinions, and questions about this important and sensitive topic.

Another goal of this lesson is to help students identify the tactics (or tools) Shriver used to support his strategy in the War on Poverty. For example, Shriver developed a variety of programs designed to help people use political institutions, education, and the justice system to reduce poverty in their own lives and in their communities. In the film American Idealist, we see how Shriver was able to secure federal funding and community support for his programs by listening to community members’ needs, conducting thorough research about problems and solutions, and negotiating with legislators. By studying Shriver’s tactics as director of the War on Poverty, students can discover tools they can apply to solving other problems.

American Idealist also documents some of the obstacles Shriver faced as director of the War on Poverty. Politicians, including mayors and senators, questioned the concept of giving funding directly to people in the community to run their own programs. They also were skeptical of the idea that legal action against government offices should be supported with federal dollars. Yet the most significant challenge to the War on Poverty came in the form of another war: the Vietnam War. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided that the Vietnam War was the nation’s highest priority, and Congress allowed funding for the Office of Economic Opportunity to lapse. As a result, Shriver was forced to cancel several anti-poverty programs. Even though Shriver was ultimately able to convince Congress to restore much of the funding for his programs, he became increasingly aware that he would never be able to garner the investment needed to truly end poverty. With this realization in mind, Shriver retired as director of the War on Poverty in 1968.

In his four years as the leader of the War on Poverty, Shriver achieved many successes. According to American Idealist, “From 1964 to 1968, nearly one out of every three poor Americans left the poverty rolls. It was the largest four-year drop ever recorded.”6 The film provides the following evidence documenting how the War on Poverty had begun to alleviate America’s poverty problem:

  • Head Start led to a revolution in early childhood education. Twenty-three million children have benefited from the program and thousands of women have used Head Start teaching as a pathway to enter the workforce.
  • Community Action provided political training and pathways into public office and other positions of power for tens of thousands of blacks and Latinos.
  • Legal Services invented the practice of poverty law. Its lawyers won hundreds of cases before the Supreme Court, thus advancing opportunities for the poor nationwide in education, employment, and housing.

Many of the programs Shriver started in the 1960s still help Americans today. Yet, how does one begin to evaluate success in a war on poverty? There are more poor people in the United States today than in 1964 when Shriver began his War on Poverty. In 2006, 36.5 million people, over 12 percent of the population of the United States, were classified as poor by the federal government.7 What is being done today to fight poverty? What are effective ways to reduce poverty? Who is ultimately responsible for participating in the War on Poverty? Studying the work of Sargent Shriver is one way to begin answering these important questions.


  • 1 : American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver.
  • 2 : Ibid.
  • 3 : Ibid.
  • 4 : Jamie Price, “Sargent Shriver and the War on Poverty Method in Social Change,” Sargent Shriver Peace Institute (2006).(accessed on May 23, 2008).
  • 5 : Ibid.
  • 6 : American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver.
  • 7 : “Who Is poor?” Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, last updated September 7, 2007.




In 1964, President Johnson asked Sargent Shriver to lead the War on Poverty. Before students learn about Shriver’s work fighting poverty, give them the opportunity to think about how they might approach a war on poverty. You can introduce this question by showing students a one-minute clip (42:11–43:15) from American Idealist that sets up Shriver’s challenge as director of the newly formed War on Poverty.

After showing this clip, students can suggest how to fight a war on poverty through a “chalk talk.” Write the question, “How do you fight poverty?” in the middle of a whiteboard, chalkboard, or large piece of paper. Then invite students to respond to this question by writing, not by talking. Make sure you have plenty of writing implements (chalk, pens, markers, etc.) so that many students can write at the same time. Students respond to each other’s ideas and questions by drawing a line connecting their thought to another student’s. A chalk talk often starts off slowly, so we suggest giving it at least five minutes to develop. As remarks are added, students have more thoughts to comment on and the pace of the chalk talk usually increases. Often a whole class might be standing at the board waiting for a turn to write.

Main activity

  1. Inform students that in this lesson they will be watching excerpts from the film American Idealist that show how Sargent Shriver approached his job as director of the War on Poverty. The students’ task while watching excerpts from American Idealist is to identify Shriver’s strategy and tactics for fighting this war. Thus, before showing the film, make sure students understand the difference between a strategy and a tactic. You might explain this distinction through using the “war” metaphor. First, ask students to comment on why they think President Johnson might have named this program the “War on Poverty.” Why did he use the word “war”? What feelings, images, and actions does this word bring up? Second, define the objective or mission of this war (i.e., to end poverty). Third, explain that just as military leaders have a war strategy, Shriver also had a strategy he used to guide his decisions. And just as military leaders employ tactics to support their strategy, Shriver implemented programs to support his strategy. Ask students to contribute examples of strategies and tactics from their own lives. Some of these examples are likely to come from the athletic field, where students regularly implement a particular tactic (move or play) to support a given strategy.
  2. Distribute Handout 1: American Idealist Film Notes for Chapter 8 included with this lesson. Students should record information in the left column of the chart that will help them answer the following three questions:
    • What was Shriver’s strategy for fighting poverty? (What was his theory for how to end poverty?)
    • What tactics did he use? What specific programs did he introduce to fight poverty?
    • What obstacles did he encounter?
    • What were the results of his efforts as director of the War on Poverty?
  3. The right-hand column is where students record questions or new vocabulary.
  4. Chapters 8 through 11 of American Idealist chronicle Shriver’s decisions as director of the War on Poverty, from its inception to his decision to step down as the program’s director. Stop the film at the end of each chapter to give students the opportunity to discuss their notes, ask clarifying questions, and go over any unfamiliar vocabulary that might have been used in the clip. You can also use these moments between chapters as a time when students can connect to the material in the film on a more personal level. Students can share an idea they found interesting from the clip or something that has surprised them. After students watch these excerpts, they can meet in small groups to review their notes. You might also ask groups to use the information in their notes to answer the question, “Was Shriver’s War on Poverty a success?”


This section offers two ways to reinforce students’ understanding of Shriver’s decisions as director of the War on Poverty and to encourage students to think about how public policy should be used to solve social problems. The first activity focuses on analyzing different approaches to fighting poverty and the second activity focuses on the tools used to fight poverty.

Studying the War on Poverty is an appropriate opportunity to teach students about the concept of public policy. If you have not already introduced students to this concept, you can ask them to define it now. One way to do this is to break the word into two parts  and then to put those parts together:

Public = not private, regulated by the government Policy = laws, rules, and regulations

Public policy = laws and programs administered by the government

Students can identify examples of public policy they saw in the film or that they have experienced in their own lives. To make this concept more clear, you can ask students to think about policies that would not be classified as public, such as a family’s rules for curfew or a business’ policy about vacation days.


Barometer Activity

Shriver’s main strategy for fighting poverty was to use public policy to help people help themselves. He believed that the government had a strong role to play in the War on Poverty, but he also believed that individuals, with the right support, could get themselves out of poverty. The following activity is designed to help students identify Shriver’s strategy in the War on Poverty and refine their own ideas about who is responsible for alleviating poverty.

First post signs that state, “It is the responsibility of government to move people out of poverty,” and “It is the responsibility of the individual to move out of poverty” at two ends of the room. Then ask students to stand at the place that they think represents Shriver’s strategy for fighting the War on Poverty. Have students explain their positions, drawing on material from the film. Finally, ask students to stand at the spot that represents their own answer to this question.

An alternate way to do this activity is to distribute the handout “Strategies for Fighting Poverty.” In small groups, ask students to mark the spot that represents Shriver’s position along this continuum. The handout “Fighting the War on Poverty” includes selected quotations from American Idealist that will help students with this task. To help students share their responses with the whole class, you can draw a continuum on the board in a place where everyone can see it. Then have a member from each group plot their group’s decision on this line and explain their group’s decision.


A Toolbox for Change

Different strategies require different tools. Fighting a military battle often requires soldiers and weapons. What does fighting a war using public policy require? That is the question students will answer in this activity. Students, in groups or individually, will review their film notes to identify the “tools” (tactics) Shriver used to fight the war on poverty. For homework or as class work, students can make posters illustrating Shriver’s “Toolbox for Change.” Encourage students to think of tools both literally and figuratively. Specific programs such as Head Start and Legal Aid might be classified as tools to fight poverty. Shriver also used negotiation, optimism, and creativity when developing and getting funding for his programs. When designing their posters, students can cut out images from magazines or they can draw symbols to represent Shriver’s tools. Students can complete this assignment as a written list, a sculpture, or a collection of objects.


Students can create Shriver’s “Toolbox for Change.” (Read a description of this assignment in the follow-through section of the lesson.) They can explain their decisions about what to include in this toolbox in an essay or an oral presentation. A final part of this assignment might ask students to personally connect to this material by answering questions such as, “If you could ‘wage war’ on a social problem, what would it be?”; “Why do you care about this problem?”; and “What tools would you use to solve this problem?”

Drawing on material from American Idealist, students could also write a brief essay outlining their own strategy for fighting poverty.


When asked by a reporter, “Mr. Shriver, do you really believe that poverty can be wiped out?” Shriver answered without a moment’s hesitation, “Yes, I do.” Students can discuss what is being done today to fight poverty and whether or not they think it can be wiped out.

For more information about poverty and public policy, Public Agenda publishes a Poverty and Welfare Issue Guide and the Institute for Research on Poverty offers current statistics as well as frequently asked questions about poverty. Students often wonder how poverty is measured. For information on how the United States Federal Government measures poverty, refer to the U.S. Census Bureau website. For information on how the United Nations and other organizations measure poverty internationally, refer to the report “What is Poverty? Measuring Poverty Internationally” published by Library Index.

In American Idealist, Scott Stossel, author of Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver (2004), asserts that Shriver has “probably had an effect on more Americans and more people across the world than anyone who hasn’t been a president or a world leader—and probably even more than some of them.” Students can learn more about Shriver’s influence and legacy by doing research on the following programs that Shriver helped develop during his decades as a public servant.

Programs Related to the War on Poverty

Other Programs

According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care.”8 In other words, an adequate standard of living is considered to be a human right by the international legal community. Students can discuss whether they agree that access to food, clothing, housing, and medical care should be considered a human right. If access to an adequate standard of living is a human right, then what should happen when children, women, and men have been denied this right by matter of government policy, natural disaster, or inequality? Who is responsible for alleviating poverty? The concept of “universe of responsibility” is introduced in Lesson 2. It refers to the individuals and groups we feel obligated to protect and support—the people about whom we care. This concept can also be used to frame a discussion about who is responsible for alleviating poverty.

Before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized poverty as a violation of civil rights. He helped organize the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 to draw attention to what he called the second phase of the civil rights struggle. While the first phrase represented developing a national awareness of the injustice of segregation, the second phase of the civil rights struggle focused on the factors limiting the achievements of all Americans, especially poor Americans. As an extension to this lesson, students can discuss why Dr. King linked civil rights and poverty. Facing History and Ourselves' Eyes on the Prize study guide includes a pamphlet used to attract support for the Poor People’s Campaign and an excerpt from Dr. King’s “Mountaintop Speech” delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, one day before his assassination.  In this speech, Dr. King asserts, “God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day,”9 revealing how his struggle for civil rights grew into a struggle for economic rights. Sargent Shriver’s relationship to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement is addressed in American Idealist in Chapter 2, “The Start of a New Era.”


We have produced three lesson plans to accompany the film

American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver. Get them here!

Download all lessons



Lesson 1 of 3
Democracy & Civic Engagement

What Is an Idealist?

Students learn about idealism through the life and accomplishments of US statesman and activist Sargent Shriver.

Lesson 2 of 3
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Sargent Shriver and Public Service

Students refine their ideas about public service by learning about the mission and early years of the Peace Corps program.

Lesson 3 of 3
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Participation through Public Policy

Students discover how leaders like Sargent Shriver used public policy to fight poverty in the 1960s.

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