Revisiting the war on poverty: Poverty didn’t win

Food, housing and income support policies have largely ameliorated the worst effects of being poor in America over the last half century.

By The Fiscal Times Jul 17, 2012 4:34PM
By Merrill Goozner The Fiscal Times

Fifty years ago, Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, documenting -- among the many ravages of poverty -- that millions of children in the richest country on earth went to bed hungry every night. His book inspired two Democratic presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, to launch a war on poverty, then estimated at more than 20 percent of the population.

Fast forward a half century. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, running in the Republican primaries, accused President Obama of being the "food stamp president" because more people were receiving benefits from that anti-poverty program than at any time since its inception -- 46 million at a cost of $75 billion a year. The recession-driven expansion triggered scorn from conservatives on Capitol Hill and a government crackdown on fraud that allegedly wasted about one percent or $750 million a year.

Lost in that political maelstrom was the dog that didn’t bark. Despite unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression, there were no reports about the return of widespread child hunger in the U.S. "In this recession, poverty has gone up but hunger has not," said John Carr, who directs anti-poverty policy development and advocacy for the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference. "When somebody stood up and said this is the food stamp president, neither the president nor anyone else stood up and said, 'we're a better country because kids don’t go hungry in this country.'"

Carr was one of about 200 anti-poverty advocates who gathered in Washington recently to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Harrington’s pioneering work. But the mood was hardly celebratory. With a "fiscal cliff"  looming at the end of the year, liberals are girding for battle to defend food, housing and income support policies that over the last half century have largely ameliorated the worst effects of being poor in America.

But those programs are either scorned or ignored by most middle-class Americans and have few supporters in the mainstream of U.S. politics. As political factions position themselves for the inevitable tax-and-spending debate that will begin after the election, the president is aiming his political message at the beleaguered middle class. Congressional Democrats are putting front and center their opposition to any cuts to senior citizen entitlement programs, which have reduced senior citizen poverty in America to fewer than one in 10.

Republican standard bearer Mitt Romney and Republicans legislators remain steadfastly opposed to any tax increases and fight any expansion of anti-poverty programs – like extending Medicaid for the working poor or expanding the earned income tax credit, which subsidizes people earning at or near the minimum wage. And both parties say the slowdown in defense spending has gone far enough.

That leaves only the domestic discretionary budget, where most low-income programs reside, without a champion. “Nobody says let’s make sure that low-income people are not made worse off” in dealing with the fiscal crisis, said Carr.

It’s easy to say, like President Ronald Reagan did in his last state of the union address, that the war was a failure. “Poverty won,” he famously quipped. But that overlooks the fact that run-ups in the poverty rate since it hit its all-time low of 11.1 percent in 1973 have largely been recession-related. The slow decline in the rate after the recessions of the early 1980s, 1990s and 2000s was due to the growth of near low-wage jobs and the decline of good-paying middle-class jobs for lower skilled workers – not the persistence of grinding poverty associated with long-term joblessness.

But the aftermath of the Great Recession threatens to change that pattern. The job market has gotten a lot tougher for every income group, but it is especially difficult for poorly educated, low-wage workers who increasingly can only find minimum wage or near-minimum wage work. Today, a family of four needs 1 ½ full-time minimum wage jobs simply to escape poverty. The result? Though unemployment fell in 2010 from its 10.2 percent peak, official poverty increased to 15.1 percent and shows few signs of abating.

“We’re in a world of low-wage work for a long time to come,” said Peter Edelman, a law professor at Georgetown University who resigned from the Clinton administration because of its embrace of welfare reform. He now supports the switch from cash assistance to stay-at-home mothers to income support for low-wage workers.

“We have to educate our young people for the middle skill jobs of the 21st century. But what will those jobs be? We still don’t know if the American economy is going to generate those jobs” given the competition from India and China, he said.

Deficit hawks at the conference lamented the inability of the political system to honestly deal with who gets the most income support from the U.S. tax code, which could be substantially redrawn next year as part of tax reform. The largest share of the more than $1 trillion in tax expenditures (income tax deductions for home mortgage interest, health insurance and retirement savings, for instance) go to the upper middle class. Limiting or means testing those benefits could provide sufficient revenue to bolster income support programs for impoverished workers while providing new revenue to reduce the long-term budget deficit.

“One of the criteria (for tax reform) has to be how it affects poverty,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, which is dedicated to fiscal responsibility and was co-founded by Peter G. Peterson, whose management company funds this website. “You want a fiscal sustainability plan that is socially acceptable as well. . . By streamlining middle-class entitlements that run through the tax code, by scaling those back, you can have a tax code that’s more progressive and raises more revenue.”

Merrill Goozner is a Senior Correspondent at The Fiscal Times. Subscribe to The Fiscal Times' free newsletter.

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Jul 17, 2012 6:29PM
Without drastic cuts to spending, the entire system will collapse and poverty will ravage our nation.
Jul 18, 2012 6:23AM
Poverty hasn't shrunk and Welfare has become a career. How is this a win? 
Jul 18, 2012 10:28AM
The problem with any government program, especially when it becomes a "war on _____", is that it never goes away, even (or especially) when it  has outlived its useful life.  Too many constituencies have a financial stake in keeping these programs alive and well funded.  Just look at the War on Terror, War on Drugs, and War on Poverty for examples of this.  They have become black holes for taxpayer money, with no end in sight.

Jul 18, 2012 11:11AM
the problem is that "it" never is fixed or done. I bet the WPA and the NRA programs are still being run by the govt. at least they have an administrator that is a Presidential appointment....or should I say payoff ....the govt. NEVER gets rid of a program or the people who run it poorly...they just re-asign them the incompetece continues.....and we pay for it.
Jul 18, 2012 12:45PM
There's nothing compassionate in throwing more taxpayer money at social problems and creating generational dependency.  The percentages of children born out of wedlock has been rising for decades and we have social programs and government dependency to thank.
Jul 17, 2012 7:37PM
Poverty didn't win because Congress used position and power to make extraordinary gains at the nation's expense. Flat out... there were people who otherwise couldn't occupy a cubicle and do the corporate work- making millions as market gamblers. This wasn't a war on poverty, it was a grubber fest grabbing all the cash they could and spiking global currencies from $50-60 Trillion only 15 years ago to $1 quadrillion now and counting. Financiers remain the boil on the butt of the consumer who recognized that shift happens and was prepared to do so. WHY do we still have oil companies? The idled nation could have easily transitioned us to mass-transit using sustainable fuel and restructured outdated corporations (all of them) instead of exploiting brands and putting corruption in place just to gamble in the markets. Everybody knew there would be a high road and low road as boomers began to retire. Most of us thought they would grow up, show some maturity and wisdom and help transition us for a solid future. It didn't happen and the ME Generation turned out to have no ethics or character. The war isn't over. I see greed needing a new home very soon and the whole Earth displaying No Vacancy signs at every port. Good luck on the Moon... losers.
Jul 20, 2012 3:21PM
Poverty DID win - the nation is now broke - $16 trillion in debt and growing, $100 trillion in unfunded (empty) promises with certain anarchy on the horizon. Self-serving politicians were financial idiots with public funds simply to secure for themselves another term in office.
Jul 20, 2012 5:27PM
It will be clear poverty wins when the US Dollar collapses and every penny of wealth is sucked right out of it, and us.
Jul 17, 2012 10:49PM
Poverty will never win as long as the rich have a greater say in our government.

Poverty can't buy tax loopholes, doesn't have Swiss bank accounts, doesn't have financial investments, can't afford to donate to political parties and SuperPACs, doesn't have the money to buy the media to tell the truth about poverty, and it doesn't have lobbyists on its side. Poverty vs. Wall Street - who do you think will always win?

Jul 20, 2012 1:48PM
"poverty didn't win...."  neither did the tax payer or the poor!
Jul 24, 2012 6:04AM

The war on poverty will never end as long as taking money from a smaller group of taxpayers and giving it to a larger group of lower tax rate paying taxpayers or non taxpayers will buy you votes because the group just keeps getting enlarged to buy more votes .


The Dems claim the the Repugs have a war on everything from women to old people and every racial,ethnic,sexual preference and socio economic group in between, In reality the Dems have waged a war on all citizens of this country in their failed attempt to create one single class of people, You can not bring one group up by robbing from another, The claim that income tax rates are the lowest in history is a false truth, While the tax rates may be low all but a a few deductions have been removed and Our governments(Local/county/state/Federal Government) has imposed upon us a tax for just about everything they can think of. The actual total overall tax rate now is higher than it has ever been and for what...All it does is feed an overbloated government that does nothing but keep getting bigger and fatter,

Jul 17, 2012 10:54PM
By the way, you're wrong about poverty not having a champion - his name is Bernie Sanders.

Bernie and the few people in Congress who actually care about the middle class, the poor, and the elderly, they can't do much about anything when the rest of Congress is trying to save the rich, Wall Street, and their own hides for re-election.
Jul 17, 2012 11:03PM
$75 billion for food stamps is nothing when you compare it to the $16 TRILLION the Fed loaned to BANKSTERS and FOREIGN BANKSTERS to bail out their sorry crooked-a$$es!

Hmmm, let's see...feed people? ....or give trillions to the crooks who crashed the global economy?!

Jul 20, 2012 9:05PM
Old Tex -
$16 TRILLION in secret loans to BANKSTERS  - You can google it.
Don't blame to poor. This nation has Socialist policies for the poor FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS....too bad they haven't been broken up and taken over by the government yet.

Jul 20, 2012 9:02PM
You mean, every dollar goes to the crooked banksters!- They are sucking our economy dry.
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