Skip to main content

Why 'war on poverty' not over

By Stephanie Coontz
updated 1:16 PM EST, Mon January 6, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stephanie Coontz: Aid programs changed lives since LBJ declared "war on poverty"
  • Coontz: Despite gains among young and elderly, politicians began cutting safety net in '80s
  • She says mix of good employment trends, government help reduces poverty
  • Coontz: Market forces boost insecurity, poverty, yet pols won't strengthen safety net

Editor's note: Stephanie Coontz is director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families and teaches history at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Her most recent book is "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s." She is also the author of "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap."

(CNN) -- In a State of the Union address 50 years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared "unconditional war on poverty." Over the next year and a half, anti-poverty warriors developed new health insurance programs for the elderly and the poor, increased Social Security benefits and introduced food stamps and nutritional supplements for low-income pregnant women and infants. They established Head Start programs for young children, Upward Bound and Job Corps programs for teenagers, and work-study opportunities for college students.

It is often forgotten that this was a bipartisan campaign. A Republican president, Richard Nixon, and legislators from both sides of the aisle expanded the War on Poverty in the early 1970s. Nixon extended the reach of the food stamp program, added an automatic cost-of-living increase to Social Security and instituted the Supplemental Security Income system to benefit disabled adults and children. He even proposed a guaranteed national income though that died in the Senate after passing in the House.

Stephanie Coontz
Stephanie Coontz

Yet in 1988, President Ronald Reagan declared that the war was over, and that "poverty won." His claim that "government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem" still serves as the mantra for politicians seeking to dismantle America's social safety net.

The truth is that the war on poverty produced some stunning successes, many of which are still felt today. And it likely could have produced more if politicians hadn't abandoned it in the 1980s, at the very moment that America's working families were facing heightened assaults on their living standards.

In 1963, despite more than 15 years of prior economic expansion, the child poverty rate was almost 25%. By the early 1970s it had been lowered to 15%. Between 1967 and 1975, poverty among elders was cut in half.

War over wages beginning?
LBJ biographer on Civil Rights Act
Poverty's effect on education

As of 1963, 20% of Americans living below the poverty line had never been examined by a physician; by 1970 this was true of only 8%. Between 1965 and 1980, infant mortality was halved, thanks to Medicaid and other government-subsidized health programs. The nutritional level of poor Americans improved substantially between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s, thanks to food stamp and school lunch programs. Children who received food stamps in the 1970s were less likely than children from similarly low-income families to develop diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure -- or to rely on welfare programs -- as adults.

But since the late 1970s, economic insecurity has risen again, except during the brief economic boom of the late 1990s. The resurgence of poverty is not because government programs have "gotten in the way" but because they have not done enough to get in the way of market forces going in the wrong direction.

Historically, it has required a combination of favorable employment trends and active government intervention to lower the percentage of people in poverty and raise living standards for the working middle class. During the 1960s, rising real wages for low-income and high-income workers, due in part to rapid economic growth and the spread of unionization, worked in tandem with expanding government support systems to improve Americans' well-being.

After the mid-1970s, however, the free market moved in the opposite direction. Between 1973 and 1986, the real median income of families headed by a person under 30 dropped by about 27%. The rise of single-parent families contributed to this decline, but the poverty rate for young married couples with children also doubled between 1973 and 1988. Unemployment spells became more common and lengthier.

Between 1979 and 1987, the real wages of high school graduates fell by 18%, while those of high school dropouts plummeted by 42%. By the 1980s, income inequality had begun its long rise to the record-setting levels we have seen in recent years.

Yet during this period of falling real wages, politicians began winding down the war on poverty. In the 1980s, they shifted the tax burden from income taxes to more regressive payroll taxes, slashed investments in urban renewal, housing and transportation, and cut back on services to the poor. Between 1970 and 1991, the purchasing power of the typical welfare benefit decreased by more than 40%.

For three decades, aside from a brief respite in the 1990s, the market forces heightening financial insecurity and poverty have become even stronger, but our political leaders have failed to strengthen the social safety net enough to counteract their ill effects. In 1968, the minimum wage was 55% of the median full-time wage. Today, a minimum-wage worker earns just 37% of the median wage. The median benefit for a family of three under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs amounts to only about one-third the poverty level, and many families are now reaching the lifetime limits imposed on eligibility.

Still, as sociologist Philip Cohen shows in a study released Monday by the Council on Contemporary Families, government anti-poverty programs are all that stand in the way of an even worse scenario for American families. Tax credits for low-wage jobs and dependent children -- which bring cash refunds to many poor families -- reduce child poverty by almost 7%. Food stamps (now threatened with substantial cuts) decrease poverty by an additional 3%.

As of 2011, the major means-tested aid programs in the United States were rescuing almost 2.4 million children from extreme poverty every month, even though they were leaving behind more than 1 million more. Without government programs, Cohen reports, about 15 million more people would have fallen into poverty between 2007 and 2012.

It is a myth that government is the problem rather than part of the solution. In 1999, Great Britain had an even higher child poverty rate than we do today. The British government responded with an ambitious anti-poverty campaign, raising the minimum wage, increasing subsidized maternity leaves and providing free preschool for all 3- and 4-year olds. Within a decade, Britain reduced child poverty by somewhere between one-quarter and one half. Surely America can do as well.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephanie Coontz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT