A National Resource to Support Excellence in Community Action

New Report – The War on Poverty: Then and Now

From the Introduction

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. … It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.
— President Lyndon B. Johnson, January 8, 1964

Fifty years have passed since President Johnson first declared a War on Poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address.  While many of the programs that emerged from this national commitment are now taken for granted, the nation would be unrecognizable to most Americans if they had never been enacted.

Soon after President Johnson declared his commitment to end poverty, Congress passed the bipartisan Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and critical civil rights legislation, which created the legislative framework to expand economic opportunity through anti-poverty, health, education, and employment policies.  Throughout the Johnson and Nixon administrations, the War on Poverty—and the Great Society more broadly—laid the foundation for our modern-day safety net, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps; Medicare; Medicaid; Head Start; and expanded Social Security.

These and other programs with roots in the War on Poverty have kept millions of families out of poverty, made college education more accessible, and put the American Dream within reach for those living on society’s margins.  Our national poverty rate fell 42 percent during the War on Poverty, from 1964 to 1973.  And that trend continues today: The poverty rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012 when safety net programs are taken into account.

As poverty persists across the country, however, critics of our safety net programs might say we lost the fight.  But to label the War on Poverty a failure is to say that the creation of Medicare and Head Start, enactment of civil rights legislation, and investments in education that have enabled millions of students to go to college are a failure.  In fact, without the safety net, much of which has its roots in the War on Poverty, poverty rates today would be nearly double what they currently are.

The War on Poverty has not failed us, but our economy has.

Our economy and social fabric have changed significantly in the last 50 years.  Demographic shifts, rising income inequality, and insufficient access to jobs and education pose new policy challenges.  Too often, our public policies have not met the needs posed by these trends.

It is time for a renewed national commitment to reduce poverty. Half in Ten, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the Coalition on Human Needs, and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, believes we must set and work toward a national goal of cutting poverty in half in 10 years.  To get there, we need an investment agenda that addresses the needs of 21st-century America and the demands of a global economy.  It is time to raise the minimum wage, close the gender pay gap, and create better-quality jobs.  It is time to invest in work and income supports that cut poverty and expand economic opportunity, and learn from local initiatives that work at the cutting edge of poverty reduction.

By creating a strong economy where gains are more equitably shared and committing to programs and policies that work, we can cut poverty in half in the next 10 years and usher in a new era of shared economic prosperity.

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