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Fifty Years After the War on Poverty, Americans Want to Renew a National Commitment

January 20, 2014

(Deborah Weinstein is executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, a partner in the Half in Ten campaign.)

Headshot_deborah_weinsteinIf 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.

America is home to many more single parents in 2014 than it was in 1964, and decades of eroding wages, rising housing costs, and the loss of well-paying jobs for those with only a high school education have taken their toll. More recently, Congress has routinely disinvested in programs designed to increase income and promote opportunity for unskilled workers. In November, families receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps) saw their monthly allotment cut by about $30, and more cuts to the program may be coming. To its shame, Congress also allowed unemployment compensation for the long-term jobless to expire altogether in December; so far, 1.5 million people have lost that critical assistance, and another 72,000 stand to lose their benefits each week. Funding for education programs, including Head Start, was cut last year, and while the new budget resolution approved by Congress softens the blow of those cuts, it does not call for the kinds of investments needed to ensure that economic growth is broadly shared by all Americans.

In one sense, the biggest lesson from the War on Poverty is that a national commitment to a goal allows many initiatives to be tried, with some working better than others. To work toward the goal of poverty reduction, we must respond to changing conditions and new evidence. We should welcome creative approaches to the task at hand while insisting they build upon, not undermine, existing programs such as SNAP, unemployment assistance, tax credits that incentivize work, and Head Start, all of which have demonstrated their effectiveness.

Asked if they favor "the president and Congress setting a national goal to cut poverty in the United States in half within ten years," seven in ten respondents to our survey said "yes." A new generation of Americans may not be familiar with the history of the War on Poverty, but they know we have more work to do. Growing economic insecurity, even for people whose incomes are well above the official poverty line, has increased the need for new solutions that lead to more and better jobs, as well as supports like child care and sick leave so that parents can work.

President Obama recently called rising inequality the "defining challenge of our time." We agree. Meeting that challenge requires a national commitment to offer a hand to people at the bottom of the economic ladder through work, education, and protections against sickness, hunger, and homelessness. It also will require more from those at the top who have reaped virtually all the gains from nearly four years of sluggish post-recession economic growth and whose disproportionate share of national income has steadily increased over the past forty years. The widespread economic pain reflected in the results of our survey underscores the urgency of the situation and the pressing need for the president and Congress to act now to reverse the tide and provide the comprehensive solutions needed.

-- Deborah Weinstein

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