Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty, Part 1 – Carla Javits

Who won – poverty or the people?

While we have victories to celebrate, and battles that were won, the War on Poverty is clearly unfinished business.  Recent evidence indicates that casualties would have been far worse had we never launched the effort at all, because the arsenal of programs initiated in the 1960’s prevented many people from falling into or remaining in dire poverty.  And it is clear that many individuals benefited from opportunities they would not otherwise have had. However, while the poverty needle moved significantly for the elderly, it has barely budged for working age adults and their children.  With about 46 million people poor in the US – including 16 million children (21% of all children, and an incredible 38% of all African American children) to cite just one particularly tragic statistic, it is worth attending to those who question what has been accomplished and seek new answers.

I have a particularly personal interest because my father, who grew up in poverty, had the privilege of contributing to the passage of much of the federal legislation and programs that comprised the original War on Poverty.  As a Liberal Republican US Congressman and Senator, my father cared deeply about alleviating poverty, and believed passionately that work and education were key to doing so. He was committed throughout decades in Congress to minimizing the role of government and maximizing that of the private sector in offering opportunity to ‘leveling the playing field’ for those otherwise left out.

As I reflect on my father’s legacy and this pivotal time in our history it’s been instructive to review the debates of the 1960’s that he participated in. There was a battle in Congress and within the Administration between people who wanted to focus on work as the central strategy and those who wanted a broader approach.  For those focused on work, they considered whether or not to target people living in the deepest poverty or instead to get some ‘quick wins’ for those who could get ahead with modest support.  The path forward was to build partnerships with the private sector, incentives and stimulus to spur job creation, and workforce training programs. The President and those that wanted a broader set of strategies won, creating an array of government programs from education to health care, to housing.  Community organizing, and the engagement of people from low income communities were the centerpiece.  Anti-discrimination efforts were part of both agendas.

When President Johnson commandeered Sargent Shriver to become General of the War on Poverty, his message to Congress less than two months after the assassination of President Kennedy reflected the full panoply of options, “It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won.”  He went on to make the economic case. “We cannot afford to lose it. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.”

Sargent Shriver himself leaned toward “opportunity,” rather than government programs and entitlements. He said that the effort “does not try to make men good (sic – he forgot to mention the women – sign of the times) – because that is moralizing. It does not try to give men what they want — because that is catering. It does not try to give men false hopes – because that is deception. Instead, the War on Poverty tries only to create the conditions by which the good life can be lived — and that is humanism.”

The result of the policies enacted was the expansion of legal efforts to challenge discrimination, Medicare and Medicaid, and the launch of numerous and varied nonprofit organizations, including our national infrastructure of community action agencies and community development corporations (CDCs), Head Start programs and Job Corps, and volunteer service programs. Many of these still exist today. The CDC’s in particular were a focus of my father’s efforts who got them funded by working across partisan lines with then Senator Robert Kennedy, resulting in significant philanthropic support and private-public partnerships that ultimately delivered millions of affordable homes, although the hope at the time was that they would also contribute in other ways to economic development.  In the 1970’s, he also helped to create a national network through incentives for government procurement (now called AbilityOne) – that has led to the employment of hundreds of thousands of people with severe disabilities in addition to fighting for civil rights, Medicaid, and Medicare.

So who really won – poverty or the people?  Given that 15% of the US population is living in poverty now (versus 19% when the War on Poverty began), House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said last week that this War ‘failed miserably.’  He also called for new approaches that work better, and suggested that we measure success not by the number of people enrolled in programs, but by the numbers of people that get out of poverty.

While the search for new solutions is clearly worthwhile, recent evidence contradicts the premise that the War on Poverty had no impact – even according to Congressman Ryan’s yardstick. A new Columbia University study indicates that the safety net programs established as part of the War on Poverty have saved millions of Americans from falling into poverty over the past four decades.

The Census Bureau came to a similar conclusion, adopting a new measure in 2010 that takes fuller account than in the past of nutrition and housing payments, means-tested transfers and social insurance programs, as well as taxes. The Columbia study’s authors used this approach to recalculate poverty figures for the period of 1967-2010 and concluded:

Poverty rates would have actually increased slightly over the time period, from 27% to nearly 29%. But after accounting for taxes and transfers, poverty falls by approximately 40%, from 26% to 16%.  

According to the Columbia study, welfare programs have also made a significant dent in child poverty and in “deep poverty,” the 5% or so of the population earning under 50% of the poverty line – a figure that would have been triple or quadruple without the War on Poverty programs.  We also know that there has been a huge decline in poverty among the elderly as a result of Social Security and Medicare.

However, for working age adults and children – after trillions of dollars spent – poverty has barely budged, despite closing the racial poverty gap – African American and Hispanic families still face disproportionately high poverty rates, and economic mobility is not a reality or very limited for most of those born poor. Arguably, strong headwinds unanticipated in the 1960’s – technological change and globalization, among other factors, have suppressed progress. And, moving in the wrong direction, most recent private income and asset gains have gone vastly disproportionately to those at the top of the income ladder.

What does this mean for addressing the ongoing challenges around poverty in the US?  What is most essential in reducing poverty?  How should our leaders refocus to have the greatest impact not only on the War on Poverty, but ultimately the core of the American Dream? The next blog chapter will answer some of these questions.  I look forward to reading your thoughts on this debate.  I encourage you to comment below.

This post is part of the War on Poverty blog series from REDF.