To say: “we fought the war on poverty and lost” is to reveal your contempt for facts.

October 16th, 2014 at 1:12 pm

Yes, that title puts not too fine a point on it. But I stand by that claim. I stand by it in the cross-section. I stand by it over time. I stand by it with a fox…I stand by it in a box…whoops…ignore that last bit.

As my CBPP colleague Danilo Trisi shows in a post based on new Census Bureau data out today (see figure below):

Safety net programs cut the poverty rate nearly in half in 2013, our analysis of Census data released today finds, lifting 39 million people — including more than 8 million children — out of poverty.  The data highlight the effectiveness of cash assistance such as Social Security, non-cash benefits such as rent subsidies and SNAP (formerly food stamps), and tax credits for working families like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  They also rebut claims, based on poverty statistics that omit non-cash and tax-based safety net programs, that these programs do little to reduce poverty.

They do indeed. The we-lost-the-war ideologues typically depend on the Census measure that leaves out precisely the anti-poverty measures we’ve ramped up in recent decades. Back in the pre-war-on-poverty early 1960s, the official rate stood at around 20%; now it’s around 15%. So even by the inadequate official metric, there’s been a decline in the rate. And ftr, such sweeping comparisons over so many years ignore so many changing dynamics in economics, families, and policies that they’re not very meaningful anyway.

That said, if you made the correct comparison–one that includes the anti-poverty measures left out of the official measure–you’d find that poverty fell from 26% in 1967 to 16% in 2012.

That’s still way too much poverty in such a rich country, no question. As these new data show, the safety net helps a lot but it cannot take the place of robust economic opportunity, human capital development, and the upward mobility that’s lacking for far too many low-income families.

But to ignore findings of the type Danilo posts today is to willfully mislead. So the next time you hear someone spout the meme in the title–e.g., Sen. Hatch or Rep. Ryan–recognize that they do not deserve your or anyone else’s attention on this issue.


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5 comments in reply to "To say: “we fought the war on poverty and lost” is to reveal your contempt for facts."

  1. smith says:

    Just as Piketty does not include government benefits when allocating shares of income, distribution, and rising inequality, neither should liberals who support benefits treat all benefits as if they supplanted income.
    What is wrong with saying we lost the war on poverty, but thank goodness we have a stronger safety net to alleviate the effects? I would also strongly advocate differentiating between universal benefits and need based benefits. Social Security and Medicare do in fact help alleviate poverty. SNAP, EITC, and Medicaid do not. They exist because of poverty, and their growth is a sign of growing poverty. This seems like common sense, the goal being to shrink these programs, not because they cause poverty as conservatives claim, but because other measure lifting the fortunes of the poor, no irony intended, obviate the need.
    A good source of data was provided on the website
    It shows the poverty rate declining in the post WWII era into the 1960s and 70s, then climbing almost to where we are back where we started from. Those are the statistics, I don’t make this up.

    • Larry Signor says:

      Smith, You have a point. Since 1966, and the ascendance of the “Great Society”, the poverty rate has remained between 10% and 15%. I don’t normally disagree with Jared, but this is not what I would call “winning”, merely treading water. Given an increasing population, we see catastrophic nominal increases in poverty because of a failure to reduce the percentage of our population enduring poverty conditions. This is the real policy failure, the ignorance of the impact of scale.

  2. urban legend says:

    But we should not forget, the Democratic Presidents combined (Johnson and Clinton even with Carter) brought the poverty rate down about 6.5 percentage points since 1965, doing yeoman work to offset the combined Republican-Presidents damage (Nixon-Ford-Reagan-Bush-Bush II) of raising the rate by about 3.5 percentage points. Counting Kennedy-Johnson even before the official War on Poverty (1961-65), the Democratic improvement was about 11 percentage points. Most of the negative impact was presided over by the Bush family, who by themselves combined raised the rate almost five percentage points.

    If the Republicans in 28 years controlling the Presidency had done as much to reduce poverty as Democratic Presidents (20 years before Obama) instead of reversing gains, it would have been virtually eliminated.

    These are just facts.

    And, by the way, I have never understood why Democratic candidates and office-holders have been incapable of selling a simple proposition to make poverty-fighting mainstream: by saying — simply, succinctly and correctly — that high rates of poverty are a huge drag on our whole economy. Let the Republicans counter with, “No, that’s not true, high poverty rates are OK.”

    • Smith says:

      If the true anti-poverty programs are child care, education, and full employment, then it is easy to see why Democrats don’t propose fighting poverty. It will cost money up front which the 1% don’t want to pay. Look at the grief and feuding de Blasio undertook just to get one more year of universal pre-k.

      If someone says I want universal good quality childcare and education to give children equal opportunity, who is going to pay for that? The already squeezed middle class? No, it’s going to have to come out of the rich doners who can’t even bring themselves to give the middle class a share of productivity increase. They don’t want stimulus either because they’re fine with a low interest rates on their multi-million dollar homes, and a weak labor market that suppress wages for everyone else but themselves.

      And the so called liberal Democratic governor of NY, his big initiative? Gambling. Just like former prosecutor Gov. Brendan Byrne gave NJ Atlantic City. Because after all, Las Vegas is the American ideal.

      • urban legend says:

        No, the answer — substance and political — is not new or expanded welfare programs, but full employment and higher wages: millions more working creating things the country needs for long-term economic growth, making more money, creating more jobs with their own spending, pulling wages higher in turn with higher demand for labor, and paying taxes instead of being supported by tax money.

        Anything and everything should be done to create full employment, and in times of high unemployment with very low inflation — and with a U-6 near 12% despite a deceptive 5.9% official unemployment rate we surely are still in such times — the Fed must emphasize it full employment obligation over its inflation-fighting obligation. Besides the fact that it is the first thing mentioned in the definition of the Fed’s mission, the balance of harms — millions of unemployed and under-employed Americans and their families versus slightly lower-valued assets of creditors — is perfectly obvious to anyone who hasn’t been corrupted one way or the other by the moneyed class.

        Any politician who cannot make that case and demolish his or her opponent for opposing it doesn’t deserve to win. So far, all we see from Democrats are, at most and even then reluctantly, recitations of long-established shibboleths for the already-converted that don’t make any effort to make the case behind them. You can’t win over the fence-sitters or make the disaffected go vote with mush like that.