Because this is the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty, there has been a lot of discussion this week about its success or failure. Liberals try to argue the War on Poverty worked, but in doing so, they do themselves an injustice. The entire premise of the question assumes that the War is ongoing and that we should be able to look around and see the positive outcomes (or not) of government efforts to eliminate poverty. That is a false premise. The War on Poverty ended long ago. Today, we have minor skirmishes with poverty after conservatives sabotaged the War in 1980.
Of course, you have the conservatives crowing this week that “the War was lost, the War has failed.” Conservative token star, Marco Rubio, was selected to make Wednesday’s 50th anniversary speech the conservatives were itching to make. His basic ideas can be summarized as, “See, the government can’t solve poverty. Nothing is better than it was before the War on Poverty was declared. In fact, the War on Poverty was destructive. It led to the breakdown of families, and dependence on social programs. Our conservative policies are better. These ideas include: 1) encourage marriage, 2) change federal funding to block grant funding to states, and 3) cheer for America, because we can do it…with our bootstraps.”
As usual, the conservatives are dead wrong. They can crow that the War on Poverty was lost, but they are the ones who waved the white flag in 1980 with the election of their idol, Ronald Reagan. In social service circles, they use the term “retrenchment,” to describe 1980-1982 and beyond, which in war terms means, “to fall back into reinforced trenches,” and in fiscal terms means, “to cut back.” Liberals would have to investigate the statistics from 1979 to actually talk about how well the War on Poverty succeeded, but they are continuously asked to defend the outcomes of a War that ended decades ago based on the statistics of today. Even with these constraints, liberals are still able to show that their gutted anti-poverty programs are pulling millions out of poverty. But, had the War on Poverty continued, poverty rates may be as low as unemployment rates.
In 1968, the supplemental poverty rate was 24% and the official rate was 12.8%, just as the War on Poverty was moving into full gear. But, after “in-kind” benefits like food stamps, energy assistance, and health insurance were offered to the poor, the resulting adjusted poverty rate in 1968 dropped further to 9.9%. As the War on Poverty continued, it just kept getting better. In 1979, the official poverty rate had dropped to 11.6%, but after “in-kind” benefits were provided, the adjusted rate was actually lowered to 6.1%. The adjusted official poverty rate would never see this low point again. As of 2012, the supplemental poverty rate was back up to 16.0% after having reached a low in 2000 of approximately 14%. But anti-poverty programs continue to work. Without them, the poverty rate would be almost 30% currently. (Please note, both supplemental and official poverty rates are being used, because the official poverty rate, while inferior, has been the basis of most academic scholarship).
In their 1981 article, “The Reagan Budget: A Sharp Break with the Past,” poverty experts, Sheldon Danziger who formerly led University of Wisconsin’s Center for Poverty Research, and Robert Haveman, wrote, “Indeed the President’s 1982 and 1983 budget reform plans and the allocation of funds among programs (current and proposed) have represented a sharp break with the recent past. It is evident that the administration is attempting to reverse the trend of the 1960s and 1970s… Between 1965 and 1981…expenditures for income security (Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and other programs that provide, cash transfers or access to essentials) increased from 22% to 34% of the budget. In percentage terms, the growth in health expenditures-now largely Medicare and Medicaid-was even more rapid, from 1.4% to 10% of the budget. Similarly, the share of the budget devoted to education, training, employment, and social services increased from 1.9% to nearly 5% (during this period). Taken together, the budget share of these three categories of social programs doubled from 25% to 50%.”
So, the War on Poverty represented a doubling of government investment in vulnerable people. However, the 1982 proposed budget cuts to anti-poverty and educational programs were dramatic, averaging 20%:
Social services block grant -17.8%
Food Stamps -19.1%
Low-income Energy Assistance -25.8%
Education aid -17.9%
Training and employment programs -46.2%
Guaranteed student loans -23.0%
For perspective, most programs received a cut of no more than 5% during last year’s sequestration.
Reagan was able to hide most of his callous agenda, because poverty responds more to the economy than it does to government programs, and the improving economy of the 1980s served to reduce the poverty rate even as Reagan slashed social programs. The 1990s were similar; the booming economy reduced poverty, countering the actions of government as it tore away at anti-poverty programs through welfare reform. The decision to pursue welfare reform in 1994 came as the War on Poverty, long over, had turned into a War on the Poor.
But the bastions of the weakened War on Poverty remained: Food stamps, the WIC (women, infant, children) program, Head Start, TRIO Educational Opportunity Programs, Legal Aid, TANF, School breakfast and School Lunch programs, the Earned Income Tax Credit, (which has its roots in of all places Milton Friedman and Richard Nixon), energy assistance, housing assistance, etc. Sure, the programs have been gutted multiple times. Eligibility has become severely limited. Millions who need programs can’t access them. Yet, even with everything stacked against them, liberals can still talk about how government is keeping people out of poverty. Furthermore, over time, in this last recession, these programs were critical for keeping people out of poverty. It is just that the government’s hands have all too often been tied by conservative obstruction in terms of actually reducing poverty in ways that would make our nation less embarrassing on the international stage. The richest nation on Earth still boasts the second highest child poverty rate (23.1%) among developed nations (cheers to Romania for inching out first place). Liberals can still stand tall for putting in decades of their own battles, not just to end poverty, but to find a way around conservatives who worked at every turn to prevent them from their mission of reducing poverty.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.
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