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War On Poverty Still Worth Fighting?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, social media types love to brag about their big following on Twitter, but how many of those followers are fake? We'll take a closer look in just a few minutes. But now, we want to talk about some challenging economic numbers. Fifteen percent of Americans - that's more than 45 million people - lived in poverty last year, according to a new report by the Census Bureau. That news comes almost 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson used his first State of the Union address to make this pledge.


PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: This administration today, here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America.

MARTIN: Ever since, though, the debate about how to address poverty has gone on in politics and the media and really in living rooms around the country. Do government programs like food stamps and cash assistance help people out of poverty or keep them stuck in it? We wanted to talk more about where the nation stands now in this war on poverty, so joining us now are Isabel Sawhill. She's co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. Martha Bailey's also with us. She's co-editor of the new book "Legacies of the War on Poverty," in conjunction with the nonprofit Russell Sage Foundation. She's also a professor of economics at the University of Michigan. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.


MARTHA BAILEY: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Isabel Sawhill, let me start with you. And I just wanted to ask if there were any surprises for you in the latest poverty figures from the Census Bureau. It says that poverty rates held steady from last year, but they're still up from before the recession.

SAWHILL: I had hoped that we would see a little bit of a drop because we know that as the job market gets better, the poverty numbers tend to go down. And the fact that they didn't was a little bit discouraging but not totally surprising.

MARTIN: There are critics of the number who say that it just doesn't really capture the times. And I just wanted to ask if you have a comment on that.

SAWHILL: Well, I think that they do need some improvements, and the Census Bureau is beginning to publish an alternative measure that I think captures the picture a little better because it includes a lot of non-cash benefits that people get - food stamps and health care, things of that sort - and it also subtracts out taxes and out-of-pocket health care costs.

MARTIN: Do you think it's an important number to pay attention to?

SAWHILL: I think it is a useful measure. Whatever its imperfections are, it gives us a good sense of how much progress we're making or not. It doesn't show the kind of progress we've made as a result of policy changes we've made in the way it should, but it does clearly show the impact of, for example, the labor market on the poverty rate. And, you know, in my view, the best antidote to poverty is a job. And right now, the poverty rate is 15 percent, as you said at the beginning, which is roughly three percentage points higher than it was before this recession, and that's because so many people are jobless. And if you don't have a job, you don't have a lot of income.

MARTIN: Martha Bailey, could you put these numbers into context for us: in contrast to the era in which President Johnson first declared the war on poverty, are more people poor now? Are fewer people poor now?

BAILEY: Sure. So Johnson declared the war on poverty in 1964. It was an unconditional war. And right when he declared that, we think poverty rates were about 19 percent. So between 1964 and today, they've fallen from 19 to about 15 percent. And if we think about poverty rates as captured by the supplemental poverty measure, which includes those income transfers that Isabel was talking about, that rate's lower, at about 11 percent. But we spent a lot of money since then, and the conclusion of a lot of the discussion about what has worked and what hasn't worked is that everything we've done, all the money we've spent, really hasn't solved this problem. And that's a conclusion that we challenge in our new book.

MARTIN: We do want to talk about that, but to say that we've gone from 19 percent 50 years ago to 15 percent now, I mean, how should we feel about that? That does not seem like a lot of progress.

BAILEY: Well, the way to think about the war on poverty, or the way I think about the war on poverty, is that a lot of these programs were trying to swim upstream. So at the same time we're implementing a lot of these programs, there are lots of big changes in the economy that have really worked against the reductions in poverty that we would've expected.

MARTIN: There is still this ongoing debate about whether the resources that this country has ported to alleviating poverty have made any difference. I mean, a number of presidents have talked about this from different sort of political perspectives. You know, famously, President Reagan made news with his 1988 State of the Union address when he said, quote, the federal government declared war on poverty and poverty won. So now I'd like to ask each of you to reflect on what efforts we have made in 50 years to alleviate poverty, and if you think any of them have really been meaningful? So, Martha Bailey, since you raised that question, I'll start with you.

BAILEY: Well, let's just go back and think about what exactly those resources are. I think a lot of the confusion and one of the things that's sort of implicit in Reagan's statement is about what the war on poverty is. So people have a lot of opinions about this, and many people think about things like welfare or entitlements, but the thing is - when Johnson declared the war on poverty, his agenda was much bigger than that. A lot of the core legislation included things that we think about that we know are poverty reducing. For instance, preschool programs like Head Start. We increased funding for elementary and secondary education and college.

Things that help people get those jobs Isabel was talking about - job training - retraining programs. We had things like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, now that's called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, and one of the things that is not well known or not typically associated with the war on poverty is the Civil Rights Act.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the Census Bureau's new report on poverty and we're also talking about where we are 50 years after President Johnson declared the so-called war on poverty. My guests are Martha Bailey, co-editor of the new book "Legacies of the War on Poverty." That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution. Is the condition of being poor better or worse now than it was 50 years ago?

SAWHILL: Oh, I think it's quite a lot better. If we looked at this correctly, we would see that poverty really has declined. And I go back to the numbers we talked about a moment ago that, measured properly, it's gone from something like 19 percent to 11 percent. Maybe that doesn't sound huge, but that's many, many millions of people. It may be that this war was never winnable, but it has made a difference. We sometimes think that it's easy to cure poverty, and it is if you just give people money, but that would be dealing only with the symptoms.

I think you have to also deal with the causes, and that's things like lack of work, and lack of education, and crime, and broken families and so forth. I would also say we have a safety net in the United States that, by international standards of other advanced countries, is fairly stingy. And right now, I'm concerned because it looks like it's getting stingier. You know, we have bills in the House of Representatives right now that are proposing to eliminate food stamps, which is one of our most important anti-poverty programs right now. If we get into a mode of thinking that the war on poverty was a failure, we'll just simply scrap all these programs, some of which are doing quite a lot of good.

MARTIN: Martha Bailey, what was the Johnson administration's goal? You could just decide that nobody should have income under a certain level, and that could be your strategy, right?

SAWHILL: And that was the strategy.

MARTIN: That was it - was that it?


BAILEY: Well, that was part of the strategy. So I think Johnson's goal was very broad. He laid out a big, very ambitious, very idealistic vision. He rallied the country towards these goals, but his vision wasn't just to reduce poverty rates, it was also to reduce racial discrimination. So you can think about one of the things he was trying to accomplish are these broad improvements in human well-being. So he viewed the Civil Rights Act as an equality issue, but also as an anti-poverty measure. Reducing racial discrimination would open a lot of exits from poverty.

MARTIN: Why not just say that all citizens deserve a minimally acceptable standard of living and leave it at that?

BAILEY: Well, Johnson was a Texas liberal, and he famously said, no doles. So this is something that becomes part of his war on poverty over time. That wasn't his original vision. His vision was to invest in people's skills.

SAWHILL: If I can...


SAWHILL: ...Jump in.

MARTIN: Isabel Sawhill.

SAWHILL: He talked a lot about - or his aides did, certainly - about a hand up, not a hand out. And you know, in the United States, putting people on the dole is not something that is going to be politically popular, quite the contrary. So we have tended to try to talk more about moving people up the ladder, having more opportunity and not handing out welfare checks. And of course, the 1996 welfare reform made assistance much more conditional on work, and we have moved, in the United States, towards a much more work-based safety net, where you only get assistance if you are working.

MARTIN: Is poverty still a matter of national concern? I mean, is it something that a political figure today could say, this is my goal, to end poverty? Is that something that, as a country, we still believe is possible and desirable to do?

BAILEY: Well, no president since Johnson has really put eliminating poverty at the top of his domestic agenda, and I think one of the reasons for that is the impression we've had for the long time - the conventional wisdom is that the war on poverty failed, and so we shouldn't try it again, but I think that's really the wrong lesson to learn. One of the great things when thinking about what they did in the 1960s is that they didn't know what would work either, but they were bold and they were creative. They tried a lot of different things. Some of them didn't work so well, and other ones were huge successes. So as a society, we've benefited a lot from their creativity. So one of the lessons I take away from the war on poverty is if we want to do something to stem the growth in inequality in the United States, we need to be bold. We need to be creative.

MARTIN: Isabel Sawhill, what do you want people to think about when they think about the war on poverty, and what lessons do you want people to take away for today?

SAWHILL: I want to agree with Martha that we should not give up. We have learned a lot since the original war on poverty was begun. The current administration, although they don't like to talk about the war on poverty or even poverty as a problem very much, they talk a lot - the president talks a lot about helping people to have more opportunity to move up the ladder and become part of the middle class.

MARTIN: Isabel Sawhill is co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. That's a research and policy institute here in Washington, D.C. She joined us from the studios there. Martha Bailey is an editor of the new book "Legacies of the War on Poverty." She's also a professor of economics at the University of Michigan, and she was with us from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BAILEY: Thanks for having me.

SAWHILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.