The War on Poverty at 50: Swimming against the tide

I have written a brief report for the Council on Contemporary Families, released today, for the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty declaration by Lyndon Johnson: Was the War on Poverty a Failure? Or Are Anti-Poverty Efforts Swimming Simply Against a Stronger Tide?

The figures include this one, showing changes in earnings by gender and education over the past two decades:


In between figures and statistics, key points:

  • The suite of social welfare programs introduced or expanded in that era moved millions of people out of poverty and improved the lives of millions more who remained income-poor.
  • In recent years, however, poverty has been rising once again.
  • Focusing on children, our most vulnerable citizens, highlights both the strengths and the limits of our current anti-poverty programs.
  • The high rates of child poverty in America highlight a basic feature about the U.S. system, and its principal vulnerability: ours remains predominantly a market-based system of care.
  • And the multiplication of low-wage jobs that has come with widening inequality is a formidable obstacle to reducing poverty today.
  • Despite frequent claims to the contrary, that government can play a key role in reducing poverty.

The report is paired with an excellent piece by Kristi Williams: Promoting Marriage among Single Mothers: An Ineffective Weapon in the War on Poverty? Her bullet points are:

  • The rapid rise in nonmarital fertility is arguably the most significant demographic trend of the past two decades.
  • How can we improve the lives of the growing numbers of unmarried mothers and their children? So far, a dominant approach has been to encourage their mothers to marry.
  • The flaw in this argument is the assumption that all marriages are equally beneficial.
  • Our recent research adds to the growing body of evidence that promoting marriage is not the answer to the problems facing single mothers and their children.
  • A more promising approach is to focus on reducing unintended or mistimed births.
  • If the goal of marriage promotion efforts was truly to lower poverty rates and improve the well-being of unmarried parents and their children, then it is time to take a different approach toward this goal.

Kudos and thanks to the Council on Contemporary Families (of which I’m a board member) for putting this together, especially Stephanie Coontz and Virginia Rutter, who did the work of coordinating, editing, and distributing the reports.

8 thoughts on “The War on Poverty at 50: Swimming against the tide

  1. “The high rates of child poverty in America highlight a basic feature about the U.S. system, and its principal vulnerability: ours remains predominantly a market-based system of care.”

    What does this sentence mean? if we talk about school age children, public schools with free lunches, and in some case free breakfast, is not a market based system.

    If you are talking about health care, anyone in US under poverty is eligible for medicaid. Together with ACA and medicare, it would appear that a majority of children are covered.

    Are you talking about pre-school daycare and after-school day care? There are not many countries where it is free. In France, they provide universal child care; but Scandinavian countries provide it only for working mothers. There is no free universal child care in Japan or UK.

    Are you saying that the lack of childcare (before school for adolescent kids) is a primary reason for poverty?

    Kris Williams bullet points are even more confusing:

    “How can we improve the lives of the growing numbers of unmarried mothers and their children? So far, a dominant approach has been to encourage their mothers to marry.”

    How is this a dominant approach? Who encouraged the single mother to marry? If anything, the last 40 years have been a steady chorus of advocating against marriage, except for gay people.

    “The 1996 welfare reform legislation and its subsequent reauthorization institutionalized this focus on marriage by allowing states to spend welfare funds on a range of marriage promotion efforts.” Was this ever done? Did states spend any money to d this?

    “For African-Americans in the U.S., later ages at birth are associated with higher rates of neonatal mortality, perhaps because the stress of chronic disadvantage and racial discrimination accelerates biological aging for this group. More recent evidence from Britain indicates that delaying births to the early 20s offers few advantages for children’s later educational and socioeconomic attainment and our ongoing research suggests that such delays may even pose long term health risks for African-American women. Ultimately, attempts to influence highly personal decisions such as fertility timing and context will likely have limited success, especially in a context in which early or nonmarital fertility is sometimes adaptive compared to the alternatives.”

    At this point, words because “perhaps because” are just weasel phrases. Claims that African American women who have children in the 20s and 30s will die more have no evidence, and only support the author;’s wishful thinking. All nations are striving to move childbirth to mid twenties to thirties. Claims that African American women cannot do that, are, at the bet, dishonest.

    “Approximately 79 percent of births to unpartnered women under the age of 25 are unintended”

    Now, the report veers to humor territory. At which age, do childbirth to unpartnered women even approach acceptable and intended?


  2. Rescuing the legacy of the War on Poverty is important work, even though the rhetoric of war made claiming progress (much less victory), extremely difficult. Your efforts, along with those of the Council on Contemporary Families, in showing that federal efforts matter is critical in changing the tide. I think the biggest legacy story is that the older people, the prime beneficiaries of most War on Poverty Programs, are doing a lot better than before. If we want children to do better as well, we need to focus our efforts on appropriate programs, I’d think, food and health care, school, and preschool.


    1. Are you confusing the war on poverty with elderly programs, basically, medicare and Social Security/SSI? The elderly care programs precede the 1964 war on poverty. The reduction of elderly poverty is a combination of SSI/SS/medicare and 401K/increase in housing values, and cannot be easily attributed to 1964 war on poverty. The secondary cause is better healthcare for elderly.


        1. You are correct, and I was confusing 1964 and 1996 for a minute. In my mind, the poverty reduction of the 1964 act is majority due to old age poverty reduction.


  3. Sad issue here is that at the very time of these new publications by Cohen and Williams showing as the title of this post claims (swimming against the tide) US Congress can’t get its act together and a fund unemployment benefits for Americans.
    Earl Smith


  4. Sorry to rake up this old report; in 1964, as per, the poverty rate is between 19 and 15; in 1965 it is 15%. Over the long term, it seems to be oscillating between 15 and 11%. Does this mean, the US has simply switched elderly poverty by youth and mothers poverty? Can we conclude that the 1964 war on poverty simply switched victims?


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