With the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty at hand, it is a good time to reflect on just how much of a positive impact President Lyndon B. Johnson’s landmark initiative has had in reducing poverty in the U.S.
The 1960s effort created the modern day safety net for working families, started important initiatives like college aid that boosted college access for a generation and expanded health coverage through Medicaid and Medicare.
Observers on the right have tried to argue that these initiatives have been unsuccessful and that we ought to give up.
As I lay out in an op-ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, economic changes in the late 1970s made the job of fighting poverty much harder, and without the efforts of the War on Poverty, poverty would be much higher today.
The growth in income inequality, erosion of middle-class wages, and the shift within the economy from higher-wage manufacturing jobs to lower-wage and part-time service jobs have all dragged the middle class down and made it harder for the poor to move up.
The War on Poverty has been fought on a treadmill; we’ve had to run faster just to move ahead a little bit. The large national public investment in anti-poverty programs has helped people to escape poverty even as the economy has failed us.
This chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities helps to illustrate how difficult it has been for the lowest-income Americans to gain ground. The incomes of the lowest fifth of the population grew substantially through 1973, then barely at all through 2007, when the economy was booming. The value of SNAP (food stamps), refundable tax credits, and other non-cash income was responsible for a large part of the income growth in 2007 and played a critical role keeping incomes up and poverty down during the recession.
War on Poverty programs eradicated child malnutrition, caused senior poverty rates to decline, and kept millions out of poverty, even during recessions.
Just how have we done? Using the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which captures non-cash income including tax credits, nutrition, and rental assistance, and deducts certain expenses, poverty has indeed fallen substantially since the war was declared.
The nation has made significant progress reducing poverty among the elderly. As you can see, in the 1960s poverty rates for seniors were higher than for the population as a whole, even with Social Security. Pulling seniors out of poverty is one of the War on Poverty’s greatest successes.
The role of safety net programs in reducing the rate of child poverty has grown. As the next chart shows, child poverty would have been significantly higher in 2012 as the nation limped out of recession. Far from being a waste of money, as some would claim, income supports have done their job protecting a large group of children from the lifelong effects of poverty.
I don’t want to sugarcoat things here. Poverty remains too high, even when the economy is growing. Child poverty has gotten worse, particularly during the Great Recession. There are still wide racial disparities in poverty rates. We need to make more progress growing the incomes of low wage workers—by increasing the minimum wage and supporting living wages for low-wage workers in industries like food service and retail.
We can’t give up the fight. Poverty must not win.