Have we lost the War on Poverty?


Critics of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society have concluded that America’s "War on Poverty" has been an abysmal failure, and they have been trumpeting their conclusion for so long that it has become common wisdom -- but it’s a conclusion we believe is false.

These people claim the war on poverty has done nothing more than create a class of citizens who are totally dependent on government handouts, a belief that has grown over the past 25 years when, in his State of the Union address, Pres. Ronald Reagan said "The federal government declared war on poverty and poverty won."

More recently, Rep. Paul Ryan said "When I look at the money spent, when I look at the programs created, when I look at the miserable outcomes and the high poverty rates, as a policy maker, (I say) ‘We can do better than this and we need to figure out how.’"

Ryan told NBC News that in the past 50 years, the federal and state governments have spent about $15 trillion on the war on poverty and we still have a poverty rate of 15 percent, with 46 million people living in poverty.

"I would argue it’s not working very well," said Ryan. "Almost a century of governmental programs designed to lift folks out of poverty has produced nothing but failure," wrote Jeff Reynolds for Freedom Works, adding those programs have ruined our nation’s economy.

Martha Bailey, co-editor of "Legacies of the War on Poverty," told Michael Martin, the host of NPR’s Tell Me More, that it’s easy to conclude "All the money we’ve spent, really hasn’t solved this problem," but if you look a little deeper, there’s more to the story. While many of the programs were being implemented, she said, there were "changes in the economy that have really worked against the reductions in poverty that we would’ve expected."

And Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, also told NPR "If we get into a mode of thinking that the war on poverty was a failure, we’ll just simply scrap all these programs, some of which are doing quite a lot of good."

During a hearing chaired by Ryan, American Enterprise Institute scholar Douglas J. Besharov said "In the past five decades, we have made much more progress against poverty than is suggested by the official poverty measure ... substantially understat(ing) our progress -- thus distorting academic as well as political debates."

In "Winning the War: Poverty from the Great Society to the Great Recession," Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan noted that official poverty statistics don’t adequately evaluate the effect of the New Deal and the Great Society. They believe the actual poverty rate is 11 percent. "Despite repeated claims of a failed war on poverty, our results show that the combination of targeted economic policies and policies that support growth has had a significant impact on poverty," wrote Meyer and Sullivan. "There have been noticeable improvements in the last decade, though they are not as big as the improvements in some prior decades ... We may not have won the war on poverty, but we are certainly winning."

And Glenn Kessler, writing for the Washington Post takes Ryan to task for his $15 trillion figure.

"This figure appears in a 2012 report by Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute, who argued that the results of the war on poverty have been meager for the amount of money that has been spent," wrote Kessler. "But, as Tanner acknowledged in an interview, adding up any spending over a 50-year period is going to end up with a rather large number."

(For example, in the past 50 years, adjusted for inflation, the nation has spent more than $23 trillion on defense spending, and by the measure of some critics of the War on Poverty, we are no safer today than we were in 1963, so perhaps we need to try something different.)

Writing for the Democracy Journal, Clay Risen noted that the War on Poverty’s biggest failing was not overcommitment, but a lack of funds.

"Critics like Charles Murray have used the dramatic rise in poverty and crime that followed the Great Society as evidence of its failure -- the War on Poverty created, in their eyes, a ‘culture of dependency’ that prevented the poor from moving up and out of the ghetto. But they confuse chronology with causation." While assistance provided by Great Society programs may have led some to avoid looking for work, noted Risen, "When a global economy can give and take away jobs overnight, when health care costs are rising and access is shrinking, when the income gap is reaching near-historic proportions -- in short, when market forces come to dominate more and more of our lives -- we need a government that is not afraid to make big plans to make up for the market’s imperfections."

Kit Rachlis, editor-in-chief of The American Prospect, told BillMoyers.com, that any rise in poverty rates in the past five years can be blamed on the Great Recession.

"It has wiped out huge amounts of wealth in every class, ethnicity and race of Americans, with the exception of the top 1 percent. Our society is facing twin frightening prospects: on one hand, this huge attack on the government by the right that could all but wipe out programs to help the poor, and at the same time, a global economy that is undercutting the ability of workers to get decent-paying jobs."

Writing for the New York Times, Peter Edelman, the author of "The Next War on Poverty," noted the major reason for persistent poverty is "We’ve been drowning in a flood of low-wage jobs for the last 40 years. Half the jobs in the nation pay less than $34,000 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. A quarter pay below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually." Edelman, a professor of law at Georgetown University and the author of "So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America," said the nation knows what it needs to do if it truly wants to eliminate poverty.

"Make the rich pay their fair share of running the country, raise the minimum wage, provide health care and a decent safety net, and the like," wrote Edelman. "But realistically, the immediate challenge is keeping what we have. Representative Paul Ryan and his ideological peers would slash everything from Social Security to Medicare and on through the list, and would hand out more tax breaks to the people at the top. Robin Hood would turn over in his grave."

If we are to truly eliminate poverty, there are a number of things that need to be done, wrote Edelman.

They include mandating a living income, derived as much as possible from work, supplemented by a minimum wage, health coverage, affordable child care, excellent public education and help with the cost of housing; a focus on a regional economy with sector-specific partnerships among employers, schools, colleges, and community-based organizations; livable neighborhoods; high-quality schools that teach 21st-century skills.

We would urge our readers to not just look at figures and statistics presented by politicians and think tanks with not-so-hidden agendas, to refrain from panic while watching broadcast news and all its horror stories and to not feed off of the Internet and the Age of Instant Outrage it has spawned and instead look a little deeper than the dollar signs.

As one observer of popular culture once noted, "The truth is out there." But sometimes we have to dig a little deeper to find that truth, and not rely on the quick and easy spurious conclusions offered to us by the less-than trustworthy.

~ Brattleboro Reformer


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