The War On Poverty Turns 50. Where Do We Stand?


President Johnson, in his first State of the Union speech, declaring the War On Poverty 50 years ago.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of war on poverty in America. No doubt you’ll see many reflections, assessments, and criticisms of the past and present effort to minimize or eliminate the effects of poverty today. Gauging the relative success, and failure, of a wide-ranging set of policy initiatives — everything from Social Security to food stamps, housing assistance, and Pell Grants — can get complicated. Moreover, the topic is still very important and relevant which inevitably lends itself to acrimonious ideological arguments.

Still, there are some basic snapshots available that illuminates how far we’ve come, and perhaps how much further we have to go, in combating poverty. Economist Jared Bernstein, writing in The New York Times, provides a good summary:

The official measure stands at 15 percent, but it is widely regarded to woefully inadequate, as it depends on outdated income thresholds and omits both much of the impact of policies intended to fight poverty and income sources of low-income households.  Under a metric that corrects for these omissions, the poverty rate in 2012 was 16 percent; that’s almost 50 million people, including 13 million children.


That is the general picture, but a more nuanced examination helps distinguish our largest successes (and biggest failure).

First, in reducing elderly poverty (mostly thanks to Social Security, which was expanded in the 1960s), from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities excellent chart book:


Second, on the gains made in reducing childhood poverty, also from CBPP:


Feel free to read the accompanying commentary, which among other details notes the continuing large racial disparity in poverty’s effects.

For our largest categorical failure these comments and corresponding chart from Kevin Drum should suffice:

[I]f you count income from all the welfare programs we’ve put in place over the past half century, how have working-age folks done? The answer is in the red line in the chart below. The Great Society programs of the 60s got the working-age poverty rate down from 20 percent to 15 percent, but then we gave up. Since the mid-70s, the poverty rate has stayed stubbornly stuck at about 15 percent:


In this sense then it might be more accurate to say that it isn’t the government that’s failed the poor so much as the market economy.” Insomuch as we conceive the market as separate, of course. Yet as you encounter various readings over how best to deal with poverty today, keep in mind that it’s important that we engage with the existence of ‘poverty,’ not over the term itself. When I think of the War on Poverty I start with the presumption that it is not a natural condition. It is not, in the way C. Wright Mills put it, an accumulation of personal troubles but an issue that transcends any one person — an issue in which we collectively own the consequences and are culpable for perpetuating.

Further Reading:

Update: Edited final paragraph for clarification.



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