War on Poverty – Winning economically and morally

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Has the War on Poverty succeeded or failed? January of 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s “declaration of war” against poverty. As Johnson put it, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” During the first half of this year, some columnists and pundits have questioned whether we have won this war or lost it.

Arguments contending the war has failed:

  • When the War on Poverty began, the national poverty rate stood at 19%. It now stands at about 15%. A four percentage point decline does not constitute “victory.”
  • Many Americans, both those living below the poverty line, plus some who live above the line, report difficulty affording necessities such as housing and food. (See, for example the Minnesota Compass housing burden trends.)

Arguments contending the war has succeeded:

  • Many people in this country have supports that did not exist before the war. Medicare and Medicaid, for example, have provided a safety net. Conditions have significantly improved for older people, who had great risk of living in poverty prior to the 1960s.
  • “Apples to apples” analysis of poverty over time, with a good methodology, reveals that many more people would have lived in poverty over the past 50 years if we had not taken the steps we did with the war.

The seeming intractability of the official poverty rate does trouble me. Maybe as someone who has worked for social justice since the 1960s, in various volunteer capacities from the neighborhood to the international level, I don’t want to admit failure. However, I tend to subscribe to the latter arguments, concluding that deeper analysis (such as that done at the Columbia Population Research Center) reveals some economic success as a result of the health, nutrition, and preschool programs developed as part of the war. Some segments of our society, older people and children for example, would fare much worse without the programs we have established.

A new foe in the war, some suggest, is that economic growth does not lead to poverty reduction, as it once did. Because of rising income inequality, the poor do not experience financial gains from economic growth the way that they did for much of the 20th century.

Although we must pay attention to the numbers, I don’t think we lose the war when we see a trend go in an un-hoped-for direction. I think we lose the war if and when we ever give up.

Our effort in and of itself constitutes a partial victory – the effort we expend to make sure that all children receive a good education and graduate from high school ready for college and career – the effort we expend locally, nationally, and internationally to close gaps that have the potential to reduce everyone’s quality of life and threaten our democratic institutions – the effort we expend to enhance the quality of life of every one of our community residents, from richest to poorest, as we tackle the social, economic, and environmental challenges of the 21st century.

We might not see the bad numbers soon drop to zero, but working together to push them as close to null as possible – translating our efforts into tangible economic results for low-income people – that brings us together as a community and enables us to win this war. Economically, we win by increasing economic opportunities that provide real gains for people at every step of the income ladder. Morally, we win by joining together in the fight.