Legacy of the War on Poverty

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The War on Poverty is 50 years old.

While former President Lyndon Johnson announced his ambitions in his first State of the Union address, it was not until March 1964 that he forwarded his initial legislative proposals to Congress. What followed was a burst of bipartisan policymaking. Many of the programs that continue to function as our social safety net — Social Security, food stamps and cash assistance — were created or bolstered as part of this historic effort. But like many anniversaries generated by the dynamic 1960s, the War on Poverty has a contested legacy.

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President Obama commemorated the occasion by describing the progress made in poverty reduction and the additional work to be done. Republican Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) countered that the range, complexity and generosity of government programs have undermined work effort and unwittingly created debilitating poverty traps. To adjudicate the debate, it is useful to go back to the history books and take a closer look.

Spurred on by the Civil Rights movement, the original policy architects explicitly connected the goal of poverty alleviation with the tasks of ending discrimination and creating widespread economic opportunity. Rather than simply expanding means-tested cash assistance programs, success would depend on the performance of the economy that was expected to thrive with broader participation.

As a result, the War on Poverty largely opted for a preventative approach that featured key investments focused on improving education, employment and healthcare outcomes. Medicare and Medicaid expanded access to healthcare services. Head Start and Title I enhanced early learning and public school activities. Job Corps, VISTA and other federal work-study programs provided skills training and employment opportunities. Additional elements were designed to expand basic rights of citizenship, such as guarantees of fair labor standards, housing opportunities, legal representation and the right to vote.

A simple count of the poor might be the wrong barometer to use in assessing the War on Poverty’s legacy. When considered in its original dimensions, these efforts dramatically changed the expectations of what constitutes a fair and civilized society.

What’s more, public policy undoubtedly has played a role in reducing poverty. For starters, the poverty rate has declined by more than one-third since the early 1960s when accounting for the impact of policies, such as the earned income tax credit. Despite policy constraints that prevent cash assistance (TANF) from expanding during a recession, the counter cyclical features of food assistance programs significantly softened the impacts of the Great Recession. While there was a 4.5 percent increase in “market poverty” between 2007 and 2010, poverty as experienced rose only half of 1 percent. These types of efforts lifted more than 45 million people from poverty in 2012 alone. That is a policy success, not a failure.

We should hardly be satisfied with these results. Too many Americans still live on the economic margins; we have scandalously high rates of child poverty, increasing indicators of inequality and a harder climb up the economic ladder than most people assume. Yet despite prevailing partisanship, the recent focus on economic mobility could offer a productive common ground for renewing a policy effort that evokes the original War on Poverty vision. 

The challenge for policymakers is how to help all Americans connect to the tools, resources and opportunities that help them participate fully in the economy and make progress in their lives.

It turns out that having a low income is just part of the problem. Being poor also creates deficits of opportunity, information and access to other assets that can make a difference over time. For many families, moving up and out of poverty will require both income and assets. Helping people accumulate savings and assets, as opposed to increasing their income momentarily, could provide the financial stability or enable them to make the strategic investments that eventually enable upward mobility. And as the economy continues to change and income volatility persists, economic security will increasingly have an assets component.

This has implications for how we conceive, design and implement social policy. Today most acknowledge poverty that is not a result of individual defects. People confront conditions beyond their control but will strive to improve their economic situation if given the chance. Asset-based policy concepts are germane for families up and down the economic ladder.

This means we don’t need a new set of policies for the poor; we need to open up the opportunities that public policy and full participation in the economy provides to everyone else. Similar to the original vision of the War on Poverty, this approach has the potential to attract support across the political spectrum.

Cramer is director of the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute based in Washington, D.C.