(Deborah Weinstein is executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, a partner in the Half in Ten campaign.)
If your refrigerator is empty and you’re not sure when you’ll be eating your next meal, reflecting on the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty may not be your first priority. Unfortunately, a recent survey conducted by Half in Ten, an organization dedicated to cutting the poverty rate in America by 50 percent within ten years, finds that having trouble paying for necessities is a fact of life for at least a quarter of all Americans. And more than half of all Americans say that someone in their immediate or extended family is poor. For millions of struggling families, building a pathway out of poverty is an urgent matter.
Americans, regardless of socioeconomic status, should share this sense of urgency. But wanting to do something about poverty isn't enough. We need to take a hard look at why poverty persists and what works to reduce it. At a time when people increasingly are aware of growing inequality and hardship in America, the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's speech launching the War on Poverty is a good opportunity to do so. In the survey conducted by Half in Ten, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they believe poverty stems from jobs that do not pay enough and/or from lack of education and health care, while only one in four ascribed poverty to bad personal choices or irresponsibility. Many see — in their own lives or in the experiences of friends and relatives — that the economy is failing to provide people with opportunities to move up, let alone support a family. They are correct. According to a new report from the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, in the three years after the "official" end of the Great Recession, 99 percent of Americans saw their incomes grow by less than 1 percent, while income for the richest 1 percent rose 31 percent. Yes, the economy has grown since the recession, but most Americans are not sharing in the gains.
What's more, an overwhelming majority of Americans (86 percent) agree that government has a responsibility to take action to reduce poverty, while at least eight in ten survey respondents support expanded nutrition assistance, affordable quality child care, universal pre-K education, and raising the minimum wage as steps toward that goal. The War on Poverty introduced many initiatives in these areas that did help to reduce poverty in America. Over a period of four years, LBJ and his team managed to push a stunningly comprehensive package of legislation through Congress, creating the food stamp program, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, college affordability programs, job training, housing, and civil rights laws, as well as increasing Social Security benefits. Indeed, a recent Columbia University study shows that when income from food stamps and low-income tax credits is included in poverty calculations, the U.S. poverty rate declined from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012. Similarly, a long-term look at Head Start program participants found they were more likely to finish high school and less likely to turn to crime than low-income children who didn’t participate in Head Start.
Thanks to Johnson's War on Poverty, the official poverty rate in America was cut in half over little more than a decade, bottoming out at 11.1 percent in 1973. Then it began to rise again. Some in Congress who oppose spending federal dollars on programs for the poor point to today's unacceptably high poverty rate to argue that the War on Poverty failed. That is not true. Substantial progress was made, but it wasn't enough to overcome the changes that have transformed the American economy over the last thirty years.