Domestic policy and the War on Poverty

The wages of war.

By Roberta Downing, PhD

This month marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a “War on Poverty.” This anniversary has already sparked debate amongst policymakers about the impact of the 1960’s federal low-income programs on poverty. Unfortunately, recent polling shows that most Americans do not know what the War on Poverty is.

What was the War on Poverty?

In the 1960s, there was a national outcry about poverty and racial inequality. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union Address said, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.” Following this speech, within a span of about four years (1964-1968), 16 different pieces of major federal legislation became law. Medicare and Medicaid, two national health programs (one for Americans over age 65 and another for low-income children, pregnant women and families) were created. Other important programs have their roots in the War on Poverty as well, including the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, food stamps (now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), and Head Start, low-income housing, workforce development and community action programs among others. Many of these programs continue to lift millions of low-income Americans out of poverty by providing food, housing and early childhood education.

What is the relevance of the War on Poverty today?

Some in Congress want to debate who “won” the War on Poverty and whether or not the effort was a success. Given psychologists’ understanding of the complexity of social issues, that framework may not be helpful in reflecting on this 50th anniversary. Rather, we must think about what our country would be like if we did not have these programs. Can you imagine having to pay out of pocket for your elderly parents’ or grandparents’ health care (a benefit that Medicare currently provides)? Do you think that all young children — regardless of parental income — should have access to immunizations and wellness visits to their doctors (which is a benefit that Medicaid provides to poor children)? Would you feel content to live in a country where there were children in poor communities with swollen bellies from malnutrition (extreme malnutrition did exist in America prior to expansions of the food stamp program in the 1960s and 70s)?1 Do we want every child in America to have the opportunity to live up to their fullest potential by accessing Head Start or the School Lunch Program if they need it?

Unfortunately, many of these programs are under attack in Congress, most recently with bills that would cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (formerly “food stamps”). Every SNAP recipient experienced an across-the-board cut in benefits last November, and additional cuts are likely to become law this month as part of the farm bill. Other safety net programs like Head Start and housing assistance have experienced devastating cuts due to sequestration, and 1.3 million unemployed workers were cut off their unemployment insurance benefits on Dec. 28, 2013, due to congressional inaction, even though unemployment remains high at 7 percent.

Despite all the federal interventions, poverty remains a pervasive problem in America. Fifteen percent of Americans live below the poverty line (which is under $19,000 per year for a family of three), including 22 percent of all children. But that does not mean that these important federal programs do not work — the poverty rate would have been twice as high in 2012 if not for critical programs like Social Security, SNAP, unemployment insurance and low-income tax credits. Of even greater concern is that too many Americans are living in extreme poverty — living on less than $2 per day, which is a World Bank definition of poverty in developing countries). The number of U.S. households surviving on less than $2 per person per day increased by more than 50 percent from 636,000 in 1996 to 1.46 million in 2011. For children, that number in extreme poverty doubled between 1996 and 2011, going from 1.4 million to 2.8 million. It is shocking to realize, with the wealth that exists in our country, that some families could be surviving on so little.

Meanwhile, economic inequality in post-Great-Recession America is reaching levels not seen since the 1920s. The top 10 percent on the wealth distribution in America owns 74 percent of all the wealth in our country, and the top 1 percent owns 35 percent of the wealth. Despite the recession and the sluggish recovery that has ensued, the top 1 percent of incomes grew by more than 30 percent between 2009 and 2012.

Some policymakers want to use the anniversary of the War on Poverty as a platform to argue that we need to cut low-income programs. Rather than wading into debates about whether or not the War on Poverty was a “success” or “who won the War on Poverty,” we should instead focus on what the War on Poverty accomplished and what our country would be like without the legislative achievements of that time. But even more so, we need to reflect on what kind of country we want to live in — one in which a fifth of us lives with far too little while those at the top arguably receive much more than they need, or one where everyone has access to opportunity and the basics in life (e.g., safe and secure housing, nutrition and good schools)? We also must take this opportunity to think about how we can play a role in alleviating an unacceptably high rate of poverty-related suffering in our country.

1The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities hosts an excellent short video describing the history of the food stamp program.