The War on Poverty: Did it Work?

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Lyndon Johnson. (Photo: Arnold Newman/White House Press Office (WHPO))

Lyndon Johnson. (Photo: Arnold Newman/White House Press Office (WHPO))

Fifty-one years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty.” And today, much of the rhetoric in Washington has turned to whether or not Johnson’s programs worked, and whether the efforts of the 1960s, which waned in later decades, should be redoubled or scrapped. Democrats are declaring income inequality the issue of this anniversary year, and Republicans are declaring the War a failure, while debating whether their party should even have a poverty agenda.

But a recent Columbia University analysis shows that politics aside, the Johnson-era programs did work. And new polling by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, indicates that Americans want more programs to combat poverty.

Study says the war worked

The New York Times noted that “the poverty rate has fallen only to 15 percent from 19 percent in two generations.” But those figures are derived from the government’s official poverty measure, developed during the Johnson years and in use since then. That measure is considered by many policy analysts to be cripplingly outdated. “Trying to compare poverty in the 1960s to poverty today using the official measure yields misleading results; it implies that programs like SNAP (formerly food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and rental vouchers — all of which were either small in the 1960s or didn’t yet exist — have no effect in reducing poverty, which clearly is not the case,” write Arloc Sherman, Sharon Parrott and Danilo Trisi at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

The Columbia study finds that a new poverty measure used by the Census Bureau reveals a greater margin of success for Johnson’s efforts. Using the Supplemental Poverty Measure — a more accurate and up-to-date metric first implemented by the US Census in 2009 — the Columbia researchers found that safety net programs had a significant effect: They found that the poverty rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012 — a decrease of almost 40 percent.

(Chart: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities)

The Columbia researchers also confirmed that poverty among elderly Americans decreased substantially in the last 50 years, and that existing safety net programs play an important role in lifting children out of poverty.

Americans want more anti-poverty programs

In a separate study — released by the Center for American Progress and Half in Ten, a campaign dedicated to reducing poverty by half within 10 years — researchers analyzed new polling on American attitudes toward poverty. They found that the majority of Americans saw poverty as a problem, often overestimating its pervasiveness, and expressed empathy for those dealing with it.

Nearly 80 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “most people living in poverty are decent people who are working hard to make ends meet in a difficult economy,” and nearly as many agreed that “the primary reason so many people are living in poverty today is that our economy is failing to produce enough jobs that pay decent wages.” About 57 percent thought that “children born into poverty in America today are likely to remain poor for the rest of their lives.”

Regardless of political alignment, 86 percent agreed that the government was responsible for taking care of the poor and a majority of Americans expressed support for programs such as expanded tax credits, child care programs and universal pre-kindergarten, among others.

(Chart: Center for American Progress)

(Chart: Center for American Progress)

The politics of poverty

With the War on Poverty anniversary claiming headlines, and Pope Francis drawing international attention to growing income inequality and the plight of the poor, politicians are scrambling to make their positions known… or, in some cases, to take a position. Philip Rucker and Robert Costa report in The Washington Post that…

…there is deep disagreement among Republican leaders and strategists over whether to embrace an economic-mobility agenda in the 2014 midterm campaigns. Some Republicans are wary of doing so, seeing it as playing on Democrats’ home turf, and think they are better off drawing voters’ attention to the rocky rollout of the health care law and other problems plaguing Obama.

One Republican who has decided to dive into the fray is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is scheduled to deliver remarks critiquing the War on Poverty later today. The Hill reports that his speech on poverty, formerly an issue which Rep. Paul Ryan seemed to carry exclusively for Republicans, is an attempt to “reposition” himself after becoming a poster child for the failed bipartisan push for immigration reform last year, an effort the conservative base never embraced.

“Instead of continuing to borrow and spend trillions of dollars on government programs that don’t work, what our nation needs is a real agenda that helps people acquire the skills they need to lift themselves out of poverty and to pursue the American dream,” Rubio said in a YouTube video previewing his remarks. He suggested that a fuller commitment to such GOP priorities as repealing Obamacare and reducing the national debt would work better than the safety-net programs currently in place. “Isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?” Rubio asks.

The problem of perception here, Michael Tomasky writes at The Daily Beast, is partly “the fault of liberal rhetoric. Johnson and others would speak of eradicating poverty, and of course eradicating poverty is impossible, and when it didn’t happen, conservatives were able to say, ‘See?'”

Responding to the claim that the War on Poverty had failed, Peter Edelman, poverty advocate and director of the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy at Georgetown University, told reporters, “it’s just not true.” Edelman said Republicans like Rubio and Ryan have yet to offer a solution that anti-poverty advocates can embrace: “There’s a complete burial of the heads in the ground when we have over a million people losing their unemployment insurance.”

John Light is a writer and journalist sometimes based in New York. He writes a lot about climate policy, both inside and outside of the US. He was a former associate digital producer for Moyers & Company. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, and has been included in ProPublica's #MuckReads collection. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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  • Gary Carpenter

    By the grafts and statistics, looks more like we need to declare war on Greed and Corruption.

  • Anonymous

    “Republicans are declaring the War a failure,”……. and cutting unemployment in an economy that crashed is a good step to produce generational poverty. Follow that with demands for cuts to Social Security and Medicare along with refusal by Republican Governors to expand Medicaid to the poor and you have a guarantee that poverty and suffering among the least among us will continue.

    Republicans also declared government the problem 3 decades ago and spent 30 years making that declaration a fact. They have deregulated, defunded, and obstructed any functions of government. We now sit with a government that is hamstrung without regulation or regulators to enforce corruption. We don’t have the revenue for a jobs bill to repair our roads and transportation infrastructure due to either lack of revenue (unending tax cuts) or obstruction blocking any additional revenue while our infrastructure looks 3rd world.

    It is easy to bring down and prove something a failure if you actually suppose to be working for the success of government but work for the failure of government instead.

  • Anonymous

    Off-shoring is a definite problem, but who is “we”? Noone I know has ever opened or closed a factory anywhere. I’m pretty sure the word you are looking for is “they”. We were sold NAFTA and the WTO on a bunch of empty promises, so the liars who made those promises deserve the blame not us.

    As far as taxes go, the average American’s tax burden has actually shrunk a bit in the last few decades. The real squeeze is basically that wages aren’t keeping pace with rising prices. In the mean time, the tax burden for a legit billionaire has shrunk drastically. All that money used to pay for things like public education, mass transit, poverty relief, social workers to follow up on child abuse reports, and now its budget cuts across the board.

  • Patrick Boyd

    I like it

  • John Barker

    “We” elected the corporatist plutocrats who created NAFTA, CAFTA and corporate rule because “we” couldn’t discriminate fact from fiction when “we” were persuaded by plutocratic propaganda at the voting booth. Corporatist plutocrats didn’t just appear in Congress Until “we” can get our act together and support progressives who have the interests of ordinary people in mind “we” will have to pay the consequences.

  • D Kessler

    This so called “WAR on POVERITY” was only fooled around with for 2 years, all the rest of this time NOTHING has been done. Now if they really want to do something about POVERITY, why the hell not start another WTA or how about rebuilding our crumbling Britdges or Schools. Clean out the lots that make our large city’s look like dumps. REMOVE the ASH PILES that are right next to our country’s Drinkable water supply. We as a country have hundreds of projects that NEED to be DONE. We just DONT have the leaders to get people in a position to HELP THEMSELVES.

  • opine

    22 trillion and failed. we have more blacks on food stamps than ever before. we have blacks rioting in an all black city, Baltimore. they dont like the way things are. well the police are mostly black, so is the mayor and most of the people running the government (are black). since 1939 Baltimore has been run by democrats. blacks need to be angry at the people running the government in Baltimore. Black democrats.

  • Chuck Kotlarz

    The success of the “War on Poverty” varies by state. Blacks residing in deep blue states are 40% more likely to have bachelors, graduate or a professional degree than blacks residing in deep red states.