Looking back, sadly, at the War On Poverty

President Johnson visiting a poor rural Kentucky family several months after announcing his "War On Poverty."

President Johnson visiting a poor rural Kentucky family several months after announcing his “War On Poverty.”

In more than four decades as a professional journalist, I never had the experience of being a war correspondent. However, I did serve as a reporter in the War On Poverty.

It was 50 years ago this year that President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his “War On Poverty,” an extensive set of federal efforts meant to combat the curse of poverty in America’s city, suburban and rural areas.

This was a big deal for me. I had recently moved from being a sports reporter to the news side of things and wanted to see how such a sweeping, historic program would affect my newspaper’s circulation area.

So, along with a handful of fellow journalists, we set out to beat the bushes to find people and communities the War On Poverty would impact. We found plenty and dutifully interviewed, researched and then wrote about their plights and which “War” programs might best eliminate their woes.

So, how did that go?

In January, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers issued a “progress report” that was a jumble of conflicting statements. (One example: that “poverty in the U.S. when measured to include tax credits and other benefits has declined from 25.8% in 1967 to 16.0% in 2012. “ No mention of the three missing years – from when LBJ issued his “War” declaration in 1964 to the 1967 benchmark the Council decided to use.)

But, to me the telling paragraph in its report was this:

“The official poverty measure (OPM) has several flaws that distort our understanding of both the level of poverty and how it has changed over time. Perhaps the most significant problem with the OPM is its measure of family resources, based on pre-tax income plus cash transfers (like cash welfare, social security, or UI payments), but not taxes, tax credits, or non-cash transfers. As such it inhabits a measurement limbo between ‘market poverty’ (based on pre-tax, pre-transfer resources) and ‘post-tax, post transfer poverty’ reflecting well-being after taking into account the impact of policies directed at the poor. Several other shortcomings are more technical.”

Translated into everyday English, nobody can agree on how to measure or define poverty.

Another view of how LBJ’s dream is doing comes from The Daily Caller, a politically conservative news and opinion website. A story it published today is headlined: “Miscounting Poverty Again: The War On Poverty After Fifty Years.” As contributor Robert Rector writes (underlining has been added for emphasis):

“Today the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual poverty report. … [It] reported that 14.5% of Americans were poor in 2013. This is essentially the same rate as in 1966, two years after the War on Poverty was announced. According to Census, the country has made no real progress against poverty for more than 40 years.

“This lack of progress is remarkable. The government has spent some $22 trillion (in constant 2012 dollars) on means-tested welfare programs since the War on Poverty began. Adjusted for inflation, this is three times more than the nation has spent on all military wars combined since the American Revolution.

“Today the federal government runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs providing cash, food, housing, and medical care to poor and near poor Americans. Last year, more than 100 million people, or roughly one in three Americans, received aid from at least one of these programs. In Fiscal Year 2013, federal and state spending on these programs came to $943 billion or around $9,000 per recipient. (These figures do not include Social Security, Medicare, or Unemployment insurance.)

“Adjusting for inflation, annual welfare spending is 16 times greater today than when the War on Poverty began. How can government spend so much while the poverty rate remains unchanged? The answer is, it can’t. … “

If you want to read the rest of Rector’s analysis, you can find it here.

As for that young journalist back in 1964, he still had enough starry-eyed idealism that made him think his government could do great things, just as it had in galvanizing a nation to lead the battle to defeat Germany and Japan and their minions in World War II, then push this vast country into the modern era.

The former journalist of today knows better. And, that is a sad realization.


For a variety of blogs, guides and websites for readers of all interests, go to Bill Dowd.com.

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About Bill Dowd

Webmaster/social media coordinator for the Southern Rensselaer County NY Rotary Club.

Posted on September 16, 2014, in Governance, History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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