The War on Poverty: After 50 Years
November 10, 2013 10:45 AM
Thoughts by Monete Johnson, Rutgers University
On Friday, November 8, Fall Research Conference attendees packed into the ballroom of the Washington Marriott for the second symposia on the weekend. As we near the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s historic launch of the War on Poverty, it seemed fitting that we take a step back to evaluate these programs. The panel aligned with the book, Legacies of the War on Poverty. Successes, Failures, & the Future,challenged the room to use a critical eye to critique the overwhelming discourse that these policies have failed to reduce poverty. What has been done? What lessons have we learned? Where do we go from here?
Editor of the book and panel moderator, Martha J. Bailey, University of Michigan, opened up with 50 years of time series data. It showed that since President Johnson’s expansion of federal involvement there has been very little change in the national poverty rate. Many interpret this to mean these policies are not working, but Bailey pushed us to ponder beyond that simple interpretation. Thinking about how we conceptualize and measure poverty, understanding the long term nature of these programs, and noting the environment is which these policies can produce optimal results were some of her key considerations. Each panelist then presented on an area of anti-poverty policies.
Aligning perfectly with the conference theme, "Power of the Past-Force for the Future," panelists reflected on the legacy and the future of the War on Poverty. Harry Holzer, Georgetown University, began with a discussion of Pre-K, K-12, Post-Secondary, and Work Force Development programs. Next, Kathy Swartz, Harvard University, examined health policy focusing on Medicare and Medicate programs. Finally, Jane Waldfogel, Columbia University, discussed policies forcing on vulnerable population namely the elderly and children and then added some points on housing. While each panelist, briefly went over the limitations of the policies their recommendations for moving forward was the focus of the presentation.
There were a number of specific recommendations for each policy area and a few overarching themes emerged. The most highlighted was the need for continuing evaluative research. Building off the first point, and reflective of the recent political climate, was the push to improve existing programs rather than try to establish new ones. Lastly cane the warning that in policy, one size does not fit all; programs need the flexibility to become appropriate for varying populations.
After the brief presentations, the audience actively participated in the Q&A portion of the session. They addressed the many social, political limitations to creating effective antipoverty policy creation and implementation. The symposium ended reminding the audience to continue research but to also find a “seat at the table” in order to make sure policies and programs are informed by sound data.
Thoughts by Becky Kelleman, Rutgers University
Moderator Martha Bailey, from Michigan University, opened the War on Poverty Symposia by walking the audience through its history, beginning with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” and its objectives: the elimination of poverty and racial injustice. Bailey continued by sharing parts of President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address from 1988, where the President declared the War on Poverty as a failure.
Bailey followed by explaining the President based the failure on misconceptions of entitlement and welfare, such as legislation that came into effect like the Economic Opportunity Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Civil Rights Act. The Food Stamp Act of 1964 improved the health of millions of Americans since its inception. However, President Reagan missed the longer term implications of these programs. Bailey concluded the War on Poverty and its programs have been underappreciated, especially considering their long-lasting benefits.
Bailey turned to Kathy Schwartz, Harvard University, to lead the discussion on the major health programs Medicare and Medicaid. Schwartz explained that despite the programs rocky start, the program improved access to medical care and led to its improvement and has assisted one-third of the U.S. population. Medicare and Medicaid are proven to reduce the risk of ruin for many Americans. These programs continue to fight poverty specifically by investing in health, which is a significant part of long-term human capital.
Harry Holzer, Georgetown University, moved the discussion to the Higher Education Act, Job Corps, and Head Start, noting these programs have 40-plus years of evolution. With implementation results, researchers are learning what works and what does not work. Holzer offered what this means for policy: it’s a good idea to start education early, there needs to be state flexibility that allows for comprehensive and systematic efforts, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and implementers need to continue experimenting, evaluating, and improving existing programs.
Jane Waldfogel, Columbia University, discussed strengthening the safety net for children and elderly. Waldfogel explained that with the expansion of Social Security, many elderly moved out of poverty. Similarly, children and families significantly benefit from food and nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Waldfogel posed the question to the audience asking where we go from here: should priorities be set on raising the minimum wage or increasing federal jobs?
Bailey took questions from the audience to panelists that ranged from educational programs like Head Start to implications of lowering SNAP benefits. The responses given by Holzer were regarded as the skeptical and Waldfogel ultimately took the role of the optimist. Overall the panel was very charming and engaging. The conclusions from the panelists charged the audience to continue efforts in improving the social policies through research and evaluation.