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The War on Poverty Turns 50: Three Lessons for Liberals Today

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Fifty years ago Wednesday, Lyndon B. Johnson announced a War on Poverty in his first State of the Union address. "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. The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it." Popular when it was first announced, it quickly became unpopular, fueled by the disapproval of Johnson due to Vietnam, the urban riots of the 1960s and subsequent crime wave, and the coding of the War on Poverty as a pure welfare scheme.

Within a decade it was considered to have gone off the rails, and by the time Ronald Reagan took office liberals had only muffled support for it at best. It now serves as a set of right-wing talking points about the failure of Big Government. However, lately there is new research trying to uncover the positive results of the War on Poverty, as well as greater understanding of why some of it succeeded politically while other parts failed. Such efforts, most notably the Russell Sage Foundation’s Legacies of the War on Poverty edited by Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danzinger, show that the War on Poverty was a more complex, and more successful, series of programs than is commonly understood. 

With both parties focusing on poverty in advance of the 2014 midterms, what lessons should liberals take away from the War on Poverty? Three stand out.

Focus on Citizens' Rights, Not Needs 

How you judge the War on Poverty's success depends on what you consider a part of it. Nowadays the war is often just a reference to cash support given to unmarried women with children—the Aid to Families with Dependent Children that Bill Clinton “reformed” in the 1990s. But at the time it included Head Start, Medicare, expansion of Social Security, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, federal funding for K-12, and Pell grants for higher education, all programs that enjoy broad public support.

Russell Sage breaks the programs of the War on Poverty into three parts. The first part was designed to boost wages through education and job training. These include programs like Head Start and Pell grants. The second was to provide income support, particularly for single mothers and the elderly. And the third was to bring a system of government health care to the elderly and the poor.

As Linda Gordon argues in her history of welfare, Pitied But Not Entitled, there are three justifications people use for social spending programs: because it's their rights as citizens, because the program is related to work and earned income, and because of their basic need for survival. Generally, programs that are seen as being rights given to all citizens or that are related to work are more widely embraced. They enjoy stronger funding, broader support, and are enjoyed without stigmatization compared to programs related to needs. Think of Social Security, which all elderly people get and people have paid for through taxes on their wages. This program, even with all the efforts to privatize or dismantle it, remains popular. Cash welfare programs for single mothers, however, eventually was seen as causing bad behavior, and never had enough broad support to avoid serious cuts throughout the past several decades.

As Michael Katz documents in his newly updated The Undeserving Poor, welfare claims of those in need have always been fought over who is deserving of welfare and who isn’t. Children are seen as deserving, so things like expansions of Medicaid for children are very popular. The working poor is our current barometer for deserving, hence the survival and large expansion of the earned-income tax credit over direct cash transfers.

Thus, programs like Social Security and Medicare, which are available for all people when they become elderly, continue to retain strong support, even among Tea Partiers. Meanwhile, if we quickly want to provide income support, programs like expanding and updating a child tax credit will likely go far and also be politically popular enough to win bipartisan support. This could guarantee a minimum income for families with children, a result which is both feasible and effective for providing support.

Giving People Money Works 

Contrary to some conservatives' claims, the War on Poverty has reduced the amount and severity of poverty in the United States. This is often lost in the talking points about the poverty level, because conventional measures do not look at things like the earned-income tax credit—the largest income support program for low-income working families—or food stamps, and because elderly poverty is ignored in these discussions.

Take child poverty. Food stamps alone reduce child poverty by three percent, from 21 to 18 percent. Recent research finds that people with access to food stamps in childhood are healthier as adults and, for women, more likely to be economically self-sufficient. Other studies find that children whose families received food stamps were less likely to be victims of abuse, neglect, or suffer from developmental disabilities. As Jane Waldfogel concludes, “the Food Stamp program must be judged a success in reducing poverty, combating hunger and food insecurity,” while also improving life outcomes for low-income children and families.

This is even more dramatic when it comes to the elderly, who usually can’t work if their retirement savings aren’t enough to escape poverty. The poverty rate for those over 65 was 35 percent in 1959, compared to 17 percent of non-elderly households. Now the poverty rate for the elderly is 9 percent, lower than the rate of non-elderly households. This is even more remarkable for elderly women living alone, which, though it stands at 20 percent, is significantly better than the 1965 rate of 63.3 percent. This was largely the result of a dramatic increase in Social Security, along with health care provided through Medicare. 

Given how well these things work, the issue should be how to expand them, either with a buy-in for Medicare for those over 55, or a Medicare-like public option available in the health care exchanges, as well as expanding Social Security. This boosts the case made above for these programs, along with more expansive tax credits.

Plan For Times When Work Alone Won’t Cut It

Note that the two major changes of welfare took place in strong economies, and reflect the ideologies of their times. Liberal theorists of poverty looked at the strong economy of the 1960s and concluded that poverty was largely a problem of people having poor skills, or otherwise unable to prosper due to geographic isolation or institutional racism. Once those barriers were removed, the rising tide would lift all boats.

The 1990s welfare reform took place during the reign of conservative ideology, and the solutions mirrored this in reverse. The problem was that government programs were sapping people’s motivations and removing their initiative to seek out work. Once people were shoved into the marketplace, they too could take advantage of the rising tide. 

But what if that doesn’t work? The problem with these visions is that they assume work is both plentiful and that growth and prosperity is broadly shared. That hasn’t been the case. Incomes from wage labor at the bottom 10th percentile grew steadily from 1949 to 1973. However, after 1973, growth in the economy increasingly went to top earners. Wages for the bottom 30 percent actually fell for men in the 1970s, '80s, and '00s. The period of full employment at the end of the '90s helped, but it was only a brief relief. These economic changes alone drive up the poverty numbers.

Note that institutional racism was (and still is) a real issue. One of the lesser known benefits of the War on Poverty was its linkages with the Civil Rights movement. For instance, Medicare funds were withheld from hospitals if they didn’t comply with the Civil Rights Act, which in turn lead to the desegregation of Southern hospitals and a drop in black infant mortality rates. These efforts made a big difference, and they are an important part of the War on Poverty.

But if we are now in a period where prosperity isn’t broadly shared, more education isn’t the only answer. More aggressive actions to boost full-time employment and income levels of those at the bottom of the income distribution are going to be essential. A higher minimum wage is a good place to start. This could be combined with an expanded earned-income tax credit, indexed to inflation, that also incorporates more people. This will guarantee that a rising tide does, in fact, lift all boats. Scaling back remaining sources of institutional racism, such as our broken War on Drugs and policies of mass incarceration, also need to be seen as part of this agenda.

If they haven’t started already, many will compare the current liberal emphasis on inequality with the War on Poverty. But poverty is just one part of inequality; as a result the latter has much greater potential as a political movement. Though we’ll hear a lot about what went wrong with Johnson's war, it’s important to remember what went right as liberals look to help those hit hardest by the Great Recession and who struggle in our stagnating economy.