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Legacies of the War on Poverty

March 26, 2014 02:00 PM

The War on Poverty was launched by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In 2010, the official poverty rate was 15 percent, about as high as when the war was first declared. Many accounts, both historical and contemporary, tend to portray the War on Poverty as a costly experiment that planted doubts about the ability of public policy to address complex social problems.

Released last year by the Russell Sage Foundation, Legacies of the War on Poverty draws from fifty years of empirical evidence that shows this popular view is overly negative. Editors Martha J. Bailey and Sheldon Danziger offer a balanced assessment of the War on Poverty that highlights some remarkable policy successes that have the potential to shift the national conversation on poverty in America.

The book features contributions from Chloe Gibbs, Jens Ludwig, Douglas Miller, Elizabeth Cascio, Sarah Reber, Jane Waldfogel, Kathleen McGarry, Barbara Wolfe, and Katherine Swartz.

Sheldon_Danziger_headshotSheldon H. Danziger is the President of the Russell Sage Foundation. Previously, he served  with the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the Population Studies Center, and the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a John Kenneth Galbraith Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and has been a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellow and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation and at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center.

Martha_BaileyMartha Bailey is an Associate Professor of Economics and a Research Associate Professor at the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan. She is also a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research and is an IZA Research Fellow. Bailey’s research focuses on issues in labor economics, demography and health in the United States, within the long-run perspective of economic history. Her work has examined the implications of the diffusion of modern contraception for women’s childbearing, career decisions, and the convergence in the gender gap.

Danziger and Bailey began planning for the book in the summer of 2011, with the goal of having the book in print in time for the fiftieth anniversary of President Johnson's declaration. They reached out to leading scholars and asked them to cut through opinions and outdates studies that often misinterpret and distort what the War on Poverty was and what it did and did not accomplish. "The time was right to do this," Danziger told APPAM, "not just because of the 50th anniversary, but because newly available data and new research techniques have greatly expanded our understanding of some previously-unrecognized successes of the War on Poverty."

President Johnson's broad initiative included several major new national efforts, including health insurance for the elderly and poor, education across all levels, job trainin, and expanded safety net protections for the poor. "One of the book’s key messages is that the War on Poverty was much broader in its programs and policies than what you might hear from its critics," says Danziger. "Because of this breadth, millions of low-income, elderly, and disabled Americans have benefited and continue to benefit today from the billions of dollars spent on these programs each year."

The War on Poverty opened up federal aid to preschool children, public schools, and low-income college students while also expanding food stamps and launching new job training programs and public housing initiatives. Says Danziger, "Most importantly, Medicare expanded health coverage for the elderly and Medicaid expanded coverage for the poor. These legacies of the War on Poverty are evident in our safety net today, even though no President since Johnson has made fighting poverty his top domestic priority."

Through the process of pulling the book together, Danziger found that the War on Poverty's assault on racial discrimination often went unrecognized. "It's clear that racial segregation and discrimination are lower today because of it," says Danzinger. "In addition to persuading Congress to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Johnson administration used the threat of withholding federal funds to accelerate the desegregation of schools, hospitals, community boards, and neighborhood programs." The new grants helped bolster the administration's threats to withhold funding if there was failure to comply with the Civil Rights Act.

"The co-occurrence of high poverty rates and high federal spending on safety net programs fuels charges that the War on Poverty has failed. But, as we teach our students over and over again--correlation is NOT causation," says Danziger. Throughout the book, many programs are noted to have delivered significant benefits, showing that federal spending has reduced poverty and aided the disadvantaged. As a result, it's kept poverty from being even higher than it currently is.

So why does poverty remain so high today? Danziger notes that the architects of the War on Poverty could not have anticipated the dramatic changes to the U.S. economy after the early 1970s. These changes ruptured the link between economic growth and poverty reduction. "Put simply, poverty is high primarily because 'a rising tide no longer lifts all boats,'" says Danziger. "Economic growth is necessary to reduce poverty; but economic growth on its own no longer trickles down to the poor or even to many in the middle class. Four decades of wage stagnation for male workers without a college degree have generated increased market poverty rates; the expanded safety net has had to worker harder just to keep poverty from being even higher."

Overall, Legacies of the War on Poverty demonstrates that well-designed government programs are capable of reducing poverty, racial discrimination, and material hardships. The collected work refutes the oft-believed pessimism about the effects of social policies and introduces new lessons about what policymakers can do to improve the lives of the poor.


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