Evaluating the War On Poverty On Its 50th Anniversary: Why How We Measure Matters So Much

Published January 16th, 2014 -  - 01.16.14


Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America” in the 1964 State of the Union address. In the decades since, some have questioned whether these efforts made any real progress. As President Reagan famously proclaimed in 1987, “we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.” In fact, just last week, the National Review argued, “[t]rillions of dollars have been spent, and the number of Americans living in poverty is higher today than it was in 1964, while the poverty rate has held steady at just under one in five.” Yet, the latest research into the impacts of these programs illustrate that the War on Poverty has in fact achieved substantial progress in combating poverty since its launch in 1964 – a lesson that is particularly relevant for workers and their families in a time of major cuts to the social safety net.

One major source of confusion and contention is how we define poverty. The federal government created its official poverty measure in 1963 “at three times the cost of a basic diet because, at the time, the typical family was thought to spend about one-third of its income on food.” The metric “hasn’t been updated since,” and, as Cass Sunstein notes, it “has drawn withering criticism for a long time.”  The official measure does not reflect “changing spending habits, which today are geared less towards groceries, and more towards things like housing and healthcare.” And most importantly, the measure “only considers pre-tax cash income,” which “ignores massive anti-poverty programs like food stamps . . . or the Earned Income Tax Credit” – precisely the types of programs spawned by the War on Poverty.

Consequently, the Census Bureau established the Supplemental Poverty Measure in 2011 to better reflect these programs’ effects on low-income Americans, and, using the new, more widely-respected measure, researchers have charted these effects since the War on Poverty began. Specifically, the Columbia Population Research Center has analyzed how many additional families would fall into poverty without the “value of all cash, in-kind, and tax transfers they received” from the government, and their results suggest “a substantial direct role” of antipoverty policies “in improving the well-being of the poor.” Thus, contrary to President Reagan’s and National Review‘s dramatic claims, the graph below suggests that the federal government has actually reduced real poverty by more than a third over the past fifty years, “even though the official poverty rate has stayed almost the same.”

cbpp_poverty

As the Council of Economic Advisers argues, “[t]he fact that poverty rates have fallen overall, even as household incomes in the bottom of the distribution have stagnated since the 1980s, suggests a substantial direct role that policies have played in improving the well-being of the poor.” Further, as Nicholas Kristof notes, “without the war on poverty, other forces (such as mass incarceration, a rise in single mothers and the decline in trade unions) would have lifted poverty much higher” over time than even the baseline levels of the 1960s.  In other words, while the United States has experienced a huge rise in income inequality in recent decades, the negative effects of this and other adverse phenomena for lower-income Americans could have been much worse without the concurrent rise of federal antipoverty programs. The reductions in poverty in the chart above are all the more impressive since they do not reflect the progress made between the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964 (the legislative embodiment of the War on Poverty) and the beginning of the data used in this analysis in 1967.

Not only do these numbers show major progress in reducing overall rates of poverty, they also demonstrate that these programs have provided particularly vital assistance for some of the most vulnerable members of the population. For example, expansions in Social Security in the 1960s and 1970s reduced poverty among the elderly from 35 percent in 1960 to 14.8 percent in 2012.  Additionally, research shows that “the deep poverty rate for children would be about 20 percent during economic downturns” without federal antipoverty programs; with them, it is between 4 and 5 percent.

What does this all mean for our approach to antipoverty efforts today? Researchers say that “if the entire safety net from Social Security on down to food stamps, were entirely yanked away,” the poverty rate today would nearly double, and likely exceed 1967 levels. While no federal officials are currently proposing full-scale elimination of the safety net, many key antipoverty programs, such as food stamps and emergency unemployment insurance, have been drastically cut or terminated in recent months. Many in Congress are calling for further, even bigger reductions and “many voters seem skeptical about the efficacy of government programs.” Consequently, the creation and diffusion of the new poverty metric, and the significant, measurable success of “[l]ong-term investment in anti-poverty spending” it has revealed, may prove very helpful to advocates for the disadvantaged. In the face of skepticism about the efficacy of antipoverty programs, this data may become a valuable tool for those seeking to reverse the trend toward dismantling the War on Poverty architecture that President Johnson began building fifty years ago this month.

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