War on Poverty’s 50th Anniversary: Where Are We?


In the 50 years since then-President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty during his State of the Union address, strategy for strengthening America’s lower and middle classes has been an issue of ongoing debate in the United States.

Recently, in honor of this anniversary, both the Children’s Defense Fund and the Council of Economic Advisers released reports looking at how the landscape has changed for education and poverty in the United States over the past 50 years.

Children’s Defense Fund Study Finds Gains, Losses in War on Poverty

Evaluating poverty rates and opportunities for children in the United States, the Children’s Defense Fund took a close look at how America’s children have fared through its recent report, “The State of America’s Children® 2014.”

The study found that, in 2012, child poverty was 5 percent lower than at the beginning of the war on poverty, but 64 percent higher than the lowest recorded level—14 percent in 1969— and 21 percent higher than before the most recent economic recession.

Children in single-parent homes, those living in the South and children of color are disproportionately affected by poverty.

The Children’s Defense Fund also found income inequality has increased dramatically: the top 1 percent of earners received more than 22 percent of the nation’s income in 2012. This is more than double their share in 1964 and equal to levels last seen during the 1920s. The federal minimum wage also now is worth 22 percent less in inflation-adjusted terms than in 1964, and in no state can an individual working full time at the minimum wage afford the fair market rent for a two-bedroom rental and also afford food, utilities and other necessities.

Government safety nets, such as the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, lifted 9 million children out of poverty in 2012. Without these tax credits, food and housing benefits, child poverty would have been 57 percent higher.

While the United States has made great strides in reducing the number of children living in poverty across the nation, Congress has proposed and approved a number of dangerous cuts to benefits supporting children living in poverty, including cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in January 2014 and Head Start in 2013. Child poverty creates unacceptable child homelessness and hunger. In an average month in 2011, 1.2 million households with children had no cash income and depended on SNAP to stave off hunger.

It is imperative for Congress to recognize the important role these supplemental programs play in giving our nation’s children a leg up out of poverty later in life.

The entire Children’s Defense Fund study can be found here: http://ow.ly/tB1NZ.

Council of Economic Advisers Report Shows Decrease in Overall Poverty

Focusing heavily on the War on Poverty’s original programming created to decrease senior poverty levels, the Council of Economic Advisers released “The War on Poverty 50 Years Later: A Progress Report” in January, comparing today’s poverty statistics with those of 50 years ago.

The study compared data from the 1959–1960 census with today’s numbers to evaluate the rate of poverty in the United States. Poverty rates among the elderly have decreased significantly since 1959. In 2012, only 14.8 percent of the elderly were living in poverty, compared with 36.9 percent in 1959. Both Social Security Old Age and Survivor’s Insurance and Social Security Disability Insurance have successfully kept retired, injured, unemployed and disabled seniors out of poverty. Programs like Medicare and Medicaid that cover out-of-pocket medical expenses also largely are credited for the lowered rate of poverty for senior citizens. Without these Social Security programs, 54.7 percent of seniors would be living in poverty. The effect of these programs goes beyond seniors: the poverty rate among all individuals was decreased by 8.5 percent because of Social Security programming.

The progress report also focused on college degrees, high school retention and preschool programs such as Head Start, created during the War on Poverty to support low-income children. Education directly affects economic mobility, as those who graduate from high school have higher incomes and are less likely to become involved in crime. According to Garces, et al. (2002), which was cited in the report, “Head Start participants are about 8.5 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school, 6 percentage points more likely to have attempted at least one year of college, 7 percentage points less likely to be idle, and 7 percentage points less likely to be in poor health.” Participants in Head Start and other preschool programs also are more likely to graduate from high school and obtain college degrees.

President Obama released a statement in honor of the 50th anniversary, declaring, “if we hadn’t declared ‘unconditional war on poverty in America,’ millions more Americans would be living in poverty today.” The president added that “for all that has changed in the 50 years since President Johnson dedicated us to this economic and moral mission, one constant of our character has not: we are one nation and one people, and we rise or fall together.”
The entire report can be found here: http://1.usa.gov/1aHnGvN.