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The Civil Rights Act and the War on Poverty: 50 Years Later

November 24, 2014 10:00 AM

By Portia Allen-Kyle, Rutgers University – New Brunswick

Recently at the 2014 Fall Research Conference, The Civil Rights Act and the War on Poverty: 50 Years Later served as a forum to discuss the legacies of arguably two of the most important legislative and policy agendas of the past half century.

Christopher Wimer, Columbia University, began the conversation by addressing the inadequacies in the current poverty measure. Using data from 1967 to 2012, Wimer demonstrated a counter-narrative to the predominant discourse on poverty in America. Using the Supplemental Poverty Measure – a relative threshold that changes with respect to living standards – he argued that poverty has been reduced by 40%, with child poverty also dropping. This is counter to the narrative of current poverty trends using the standard federal poverty measure.

Robert Haveman, University of Wisconsin–Madison, then provided a sociopolitical context of poverty from 1965 to the present. He identified four distinct periods in the evolution of poverty and welfare policy: 1965-1975 was characterized by the provision of legal and medical services, the development of human capital, and stimulating community change; 1975-1985 followed with a sagging economy which led to a reassessment of early antipoverty programs, a decline in cash income support, and a growing emphasis on work; 1985-2000 was a period of work-based reform and retrenchment; and 2000 to the present has been a period largely marked by expansion but lacking in reform.

The next speaker, Joni Hersch, Vanderbilt University, focused her discussion on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment. She addressed the role of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), which is not in the business of litigating claims. Hersch also addressed the issue of current and potential extensions of Title VII to include claims based on colorism, sexual orientation, and use of boxes asking about convictions.

Marianne Bitler, University of California, Irvine, then talked about some of the unintended effects of the War on Poverty and broader lessons for policy. She discussed the tradeoffs for policymakers in deciding on targets. Bitler highlighted the various complex interactions between programs that have unknown effects of poverty and poor populations, as well as the need to pay attention to quality of programming as well as the number of available programs.

Raphael Bostic, University of Southern California, closed the conversation by leading the panel into a solutions-oriented discussion. He specifically highlighted the proceedings of the Innovating to End Urban Poverty conference. Bostic provided some recommendations to consider when engaging in poverty policymaking. First, solutions to the problem should be economic since the problems are economic. Solutions should also be local to address needs for education and jobs. Further, these solutions should be place conscious. Lastly, Bostic proffered that the evaluation period for programs should be lengthened so that we can learn the lessons needed from the implementation of various policies and programs.

This session highlighted the history and legacies of both the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Act. While there has been progress in addressing poverty and discrimination, it is clear that the United States still has a long way to go.

 

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