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The Legacy of the War on Poverty

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Submitted By dli8687
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Fred Johnson
MLS 673: Dr. Beggs
M2A1 Essay
“The Legacy of the War on Poverty: Abandonment or Failure?”
In 1964 vast stretches of America were living in abject poverty- Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, Texas-Mexico border, Indian reservations, central urban areas, etc. Many lacked indoor plumbing, and some individuals were literally starving. On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty” in his State of the Union Address. Johnson’s original intent was the eradication of poverty in America (Sparks 1). 50 years later the policies and programs that were established in 1964 have remained largely unchanged in spite of the fact that the dynamics of child poverty have significantly shifted. Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and college-grant and school nutrition programs were developed under the Johnson administration. They have been the keystone for the war on poverty. In the past two decades opponents of social welfare programs have vilified them citing that they perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Critics of social welfare also point to long-term abuse of government funds and a bloated bureaucracy that is necessary to support it. The legacy of the war on poverty is one of failure or of abandonment depending upon your perspective.
It is difficult to gage how effective the War on Poverty has been over the past five decades. Principally, the metrics for measuring poverty utilized in the 1960’s versus what political think tanks, academia and the Congressional Budget Office employ today vastly differ. Based upon U.S. Census Bureau data, approximately 23% of children lived in poverty in 1964- roughly 16 million children. Using Census Bureau Data, child poverty dropped in the 1960’s and 1970’s. However, there were steady increases throughout the years to 2012 when the census data indicated 22% of children living at the poverty level or approximately 16 million (Sparks 1). U.S. Census Bureau data effectively shows almost no change in 2012 over 1964. A study conducted by Columbia University in 2011 utilized a broader range of metrics to gage poverty including housing aid, food stamps, and school meals. This study projected that the number of Americans that would have been in poverty without government assistance in 2012 would have been 31%, nearly double that of the U.S. Census Bureau data (Sparks 2). Along the same lines a Georgetown University study in 2007 concluded that the federal school meal programs that were expanded during the War on Poverty improved indigent students’ overall academic achievement by a full year (Sparks 3), citing increased attendance and reduced malnutrition in the early years.
In the early years of the War on Poverty, social welfare legislation was often associated with civil rights legislation. Some argued that policy makers developed a tendency to use “race” as a proxy for “poverty” and “black” as a catch-all for all minority groups. This rationale had logic in the 1960’s. Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans and all other minority groups made up less than 5 percent of the country’s population (Sparks 4). This paradigm is no longer applicable and certainly not in the West Coast where socioeconomic disparity between groups may be between any combination of African American, Latino and/or Asian Americans. Future social welfare programs may have to be regionalized to better respond to the unique cultural and social demands of the present day.
It can be argued that the War on Poverty was most successful with its effort in providing safeguards for senior citizens. Both the Older Americans and Social Security Acts set out extensive safeguards to protect senior citizens from falling into extreme indigence. Today, the poverty rate for those ages 65 and above has dropped more than any other age group (Sparks 5). Some maintain that this is due to the educational efforts that were put in place during the War on Poverty. In 1960, more than 80 percent of adults in poverty had not graduated high school (Sparks 5). For this reason, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 set the attainment of at least a high school education as a priority. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 80% of adults living in poverty today have a high school diploma or equivalency diploma, which indicates a high school education, is not sufficient to avoid poverty status anymore.
Not everyone is a proponent of the War on Poverty. Some never envisioned a complex, layered bureaucracy that would last in excess of 50 years and still have no definitive end. Since beginning the War on Poverty, the federal government has expended in excess of $12 trillion. During this same period, states and localities have appropriated over $3 trillion in funds in programs targeting indigent Americans (Trends Magazine 21). Opponents of the War on Poverty argue that in 2012 the rate was climbing at 15.1% and was expected to grow. This would be the highest level since President Johnson started his initiatives in 1965. Opposition to social welfare programs began to gain synergy with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Responsibility Act of 1996. This legislation sought to break the “dependency” of welfare recipients on government aid, particularly those on cash assistance programs (Trends Magazine 22). This legislation successfully removed 2.8 million families (~60%) from the welfare rolls and into jobs. However, it is not known how many of these individuals may have reenrolled into assistance programs at later dates. Recently, the Obama administration promulgated HHS guidelines allowing states to wave many of the provisions of the Personal Responsibility and Work Responsibility Act prompting opponents to declare that America is returning to a welfare state. Some are citing that the war is not lost but rather it is un-winnable.
The main critics of the War on Poverty are principally those who oppose large government. The War on Poverty is intrinsically a large, bureaucratic institution. It establishes an entire industry to administer the programs as well as suppliers and beneficiaries such as landlords and physicians who receive payments for their services to the indigent. Opponents argue that states, non-profits and even some private sector entities have conflicts of interests with regard to the War on Poverty. The cancellation of social welfare programs would result in the loss of guaranteed revenue streams to states and localities that would have to rely on private sector investment otherwise (Trends Magazine 23-24). The War on Poverty has become more politically charged along party lines with Republicans vilifying the recipients of its programs and democrats still using it as a banner for its political party.
The demarcation of the War on Poverty is not new. Ronald Reagan called for an end of the “welfare queens” and used it as one of the main planks of his political platform for his 1980 presidential victory (Abramsky 14). Rush Limbaugh calls out to hungry children who access summer feeding programs as “wanton little waifs.” Paul Ryan accuses food stamp recipients of lounging around for hand-out’s. Democrats still maintain that the modern state has an obligation to intervene with programs to systematically address poverty (Abramsky 15). What has occurred over the past 50 years is a clear shift from empathy to antipathy. There are varying perceptions of what poverty is, and public opinion differs greatly even among democrats and republicans to what extent government should be involved in eradicating or mitigating its effect on our society. The future of the War on Poverty will likely be decided by the outcomes of the next general elections.


Abramsky, Sasha. "The Battle Hymn Of The War On Poverty." Nation 298.5 (2014): 12-17. Academic Search Complete. Web. 26 May 2014. | "Can The War On Poverty Still Be Won?." Trends Magazine 113 (2012): 20-26. Business Source Complete. Web. 26 May 2014. | Sparks, Sarah. "50 Years Later, Verdicts Are Mixed On The Nation's War On Poverty. (Cover Story)." Education Week 33.18 (2014): 1-6. Professional Development Collection. Web. 26 May 2014. |

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