How Should ‘The War on Poverty’ Be Judged?


In a post highlighting some findings from a new Columbia paper on poverty trends over the last five decades, Brad Plumer writes that, ”The ‘war on poverty’ has been less successful in helping people break free from the need for safety-net programs in the first place. That is, if you don’t factor in all these programs, then the [share] of Americans with incomes below the poverty line has actually grown, from 26 percent in 1967 to 29 percent in 2012.”

This is a somewhat puzzling characterization because it implies that one of the goals of the “war on poverty” was to help, say, the elderly “break free” from Social Security and Medicare, college students to break free from student financial aid, or poorly compensated workers to break free from the Earned Income Tax Credit. It would have been more accurate for Plumer to explain that the (quite intentional) weakening of labor market institutions like collective bargaining and the minimum wage over the last several decades has increased the likelihood that workers end up trapped in poorly-compensated jobs.

Programs that socialize a portion of employer’s labor costs, like the EITC, have helped many poorly-compensated workers with children break free from the poverty their inadequate wages would otherwise consign them to, but these programs would be much more effective if combined with improved labor standards.

This is important to note for at least two reasons. First, Plumer’s statement may lead many readers to think that working-class people haven’t been doing enough on their own to “break free” from means-tested programs, while in fact, low-income people today are better educated than ever and the labor force participation rate of low-income mothers (and women generally) steadily increased following Lyndon Baines Johnson’s war-on-poverty declaration.

Second, it is a reminder that, as Paul Starr has noted that, ”The idea of a war on poverty without strengthening the hand of labor was a great mistake,” one made in part because “too many liberals thought of poverty only as a policy problem, not as a reflection of the underlying distribution of power that politics could alter.”

Finally, while Plumer’s article gives Johnson the credit for launching a “war on poverty,” it would have been helpful for him to also explain that the war itself was a fairly conservative initiative, one taken to scale in no small part by President Nixon and conservative Southern Democrats.

Originally written for the blog of The Center for Economic and Policy Research, which was established in 1999 to promote democratic debate on the most important economic and social issues that affect people’s lives. CEPR is committed to presenting issues in an accurate and understandable manner, so that the public is better prepared to choose among various policy options. Follow CEPR on Twitter @ceprdc.

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