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We Won the War on Poverty, then Lost the Peace

Research & Commentary
September 11, 2012

by Salvatore Babones

When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty in January 1964, the poverty rate was over 19 percent. By 1972 it had fallen to less than 12 percent, and it stayed there for most of the 1970s.

Anyone who says we lost the war on poverty is flat out ignoring these numbers. We won the war on poverty. What we lost was the peace.

During the war on poverty, the nation’s official poverty rate fell dramatically. Since the end of the war on poverty, America’s official poverty rate has been stable or rising. Even worse, real poverty is even higher than the official rate suggests.

The official federal government poverty line was developed in 1965 and adopted in 1969 as a dollar measure of how much it cost to live at a minimally acceptable standard of living in 1960s America.

Since its official adoption in 1969, the poverty line has been updated for inflation, but not for changes in the standard of living. It still represents a dollar measure of how much 1960s Americans thought it cost to live at a minimally acceptable standard of living.

As a result, when officials say that 15 percent of Americans live in poverty today, what they’re really saying is that 15 percent of Americans today live in what would have been considered poverty in the late 1960s. The poverty line in 2010 for a family of four was $22,314.

News flash: We’re no longer living in the 1960s. At some point we have to start having higher standards for how poor people should live than we did half a century ago.

[pullquote]Fifteen percent of Americans today live in what would have been considered poverty in the late 1960s.[/pullquote]

Can you imagine 1960s Americans using a poverty line that had been set at the end of World War I? How can we still be using a poverty line that was set during the Vietnam War? Life should be better today than it was in 1969, even for poor people.

Life for poor Americans sure was better in 1969 than it was in the 1920s.

And the fact is that even by 1960s standards we allow an embarrassing number of Americans to live in poverty.

More than one-third of all single-mother-headed families are in poverty. One-fifth of all American children live below the poverty line.

The poverty rate for African-American children is nearly 40 percent. It has never fallen below 30 percent.

Had the poverty line been adjusted for improvements in the standard of living over the past 43 years, these figures would be even higher.

But the important question isn’t how to measure poverty. It’s how to end it.

We might look back to the 1960s again for the answer.

In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty in America.” The United States invested in public housing, roads, and public transportation.

The federal government created Head Start both to improve education and to put people to work investing in our kids.

The minimum wage was increased and expanded to cover nearly all workers.

In short, Washington put people to work and ensured that working people made a respectable income.

The government did this while at the same time fighting a costly war in Vietnam, dealing with mass protests at home, and putting a man on the Moon.

Poverty rates have never been lower than they were in the 1970s, after the war on poverty ended in a victory.

If 1960s America could eliminate most serious poverty in the United States, surely 2010s America could do the same. Our national income per person is now more than twice as high as it was in 1970. We have the money. We lack only the will.

Originally published in OtherWords. Copyright, OtherWords. Used with permission.

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