The War on Poverty: 50 years later

  • In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson launched a comprehensive attack on poverty in the United States.  His Administration and Congress recognized that poverty could not be dramatically reduced without progress on many fronts, helping current and future generations of workers.   It would be necessary to improve nutrition, health, and housing.   From preschool through college, the poor would gain greater access to a good education.   Racial discrimination would be fought. Over the next four years, Johnson guided a remarkable package of legislation through Congress, enacting landmark civil rights laws; passing Head Start,  K-12 education aid for low-income communities,  college work-study and low-interest loans; creating the national food stamp program, Medicare and Medicaid; expanding school lunch aid and creating the school breakfast program;  increasing the minimum wage and Social Security benefits;  strengthening labor protections; expanding the supply of subsidized housing and aid to cities; and providing job training and work experience.

    This comprehensive approach worked to reduce poverty.   When the effects of food stamps and tax policy are counted, poverty declined by about one-quarter from 1967 to 1979.

    These programs worked in tandem with broadly shared economic growth through the early 1970s.  But over the last forty years, wages have stagnated for middle- and low-income workers and an increasing share of our nation’s economic gains have gone to those at the top.

    The antipoverty programs begun 50 years ago have not been enough to counter these economic trends, but they do teach us that when a national commitment is made to reduce poverty, real progress can be achieved.

    Programs like food stamps (SNAP) and Unemployment Insurance continue to reduce poverty. Newer approaches, such as low-income tax credits, also have pronounced antipoverty effects.  Our challenge now is to return to a national commitment to reduce poverty and inequality that must include steps to ensure that economic growth is shared.