The War on Poverty is, as much as ever, a hot political topic 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson launched an array of social programs aimed at eradicating destitution and its attendant ills.
Last fall, Congress rolled back food stamp benefits to 2008 levels as applicants had surged during the Great Recession. In Utah, they had more than doubled. Utah also is among 23 states that have yet to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. And this week, the U.S. Senate killed an extension of unemployment benefits affecting more than 1 million people nationwide.
“Some would argue the safety net has unraveled in recent years,” said Pam Perlich, research economist at the University of Utah’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. “I can’t imagine any humane society with the affluence we have that wouldn’t have the same programs.”
But conservatives deride the War on Poverty as an expensive failure. They point to poverty rates that are as high now as they were in the mid-1970s and contend that government programs, like food stamps, Medicaid and unemployment insurance are disincentives for the poor to get out and work.
By contrast, supporters maintain the War on Poverty has had successes and emphasize the low poverty rates for seniors — 9.5 percent in 2012 compared with 35 percent in 1959 — better access to health care for most Americans, falling infant mortality rates and rising numbers of college graduates as clear evidence that Johnson’s initiatives are working.
Certainly poverty has not disappeared. Since 2008, poverty rates are up. About 46 million Americans, including some 360,000 Utahns, live below the poverty line, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as a family of four with a household income below $23,050. Since the last census, the unemployment rate has increased, according to federal and state estimates.
Children • Without LBJ’s initiatives, poverty in this country would be much worse, supporters say. The biggest segment of the impoverished population is children — nationally, about one in five youngsters 17 and under live in poverty. But through food stamps and school-lunch programs, there is considerably less malnutrition today than 50 years ago.
“We haven’t seen a significant drop in the poverty rates since the mid-1970s,” said Thomas Maloney, chairman of the U. of U.’s Department of Economics. “When poverty is concentrated among children, it will have ill effects down the line.”
Among the challenges, according to experts on both sides, is providing those youth with education and training that would allow them to break the cycle of poverty. The Utah Department of Workforce Services is tracking “intergenerational poverty” in an effort to find answers to the phenomenon.
The national poverty rate in 1959 — before Johnson’s initiatives — was 22.1 percent. Utah’s poverty rate for that year was 15.4 percent, according to the Department of Workforce Services. But by 1969 — five years into the poverty war — the national poverty rate had dropped to 13.7 percent and Utah’s was down to 11.4 percent.
The Beehive State has fared better than the national average because of its continued economic growth, said John Krantz, research economist for Workforce Services.
From 1969 to 2008, poverty rates remained more or less the same, with fluctuations that reflected the general health of the economy. But by 2012, after four years of deep recession, the national poverty rate had grown to 15.9 percent. Utah’s poverty rate went up to 13 percent.
“Clearly there is a deficiency in demand [for jobs] in the labor market,” Maloney said. “In those kinds of conditions, you need this [War on Poverty programs’] kind of support.”
Measuring the success of LBJ’s social-welfare initiative is difficult because of the wide array of programs and the fact that the nation and its economy have changed. Many manufacturing jobs are gone. But high-tech jobs are on the rise. And family dynamics differ, too, with many more single-parent households, according to “Legacies of the War on Poverty” by the Russell Sage Foundation.
“Many of these shifts have tended to increase poverty, even as antipoverty programs have tended to reduce it,” the foundation reports. “These offsetting forces render misleading simple comparisons of today’s poverty rate with the one in 1964.”
Among Johnson’s landmark initiatives are the Food Stamp Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Medicare and Medicaid also were created. And although Social Security was a New Deal program initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, benefits doubled under Johnson.
Pockets • Overall, the War on Poverty has had successes, said Jeff Steagall, a Weber State University economist and dean of the Goddard School of Business & Economics. However, he said, pockets of America have been left behind.
LBJ’s war sought to alleviate the immediate needs of poverty — food, housing and health care — and then provide training and education that would allow the impoverished to gain employment and work themselves out of poverty. The second part of that equation hasn’t succeeded in inner cities, American-Indian reservations and some other rural locales.
One big reason, Steagall said, is a lack of economic opportunities in those areas where new jobs are rare. Blight in the inner cities dissuades new business and investment. Rural reservations, on the other hand, are remote from markets and potential customers, making economic gains difficult.
“In those areas, kids grow up thinking they don’t have any economic prospects,” Steagall said. “You get a psychological thing coming into play. They don’t think they can share in the American Dream.”
Without education and economic opportunity, poverty can prevail from generation to generation despite government programs, said Paul Schvaneveldt, chairman of Child and Family Studies at Weber State. He is among researchers working with Workforce Services on how to break the cycle of “intergenerational poverty.”
Since LBJ’s historic 1964 State of the Union address, far more families — almost three times as many, according to the census bureau — are single-parent households with no male breadwinner. Of that group, 48 percent live in poverty, he said. And the female offspring in those families have a higher rate of teenage pregnancy than two-parent homes, leading to one generation after another locked in poverty,
“It can be difficult to break that pregnancy pattern,” Schvaneveldt said.
Key to breaking the poverty cycle is early and continued education, he said. Without it, young adults are shackled to a lifetime of low-wage jobs.
“Historically, you could get a job in manufacturing and support a family,” he said. “Today that is more difficult and labor salaries have not kept pace [with inflation and the cost of living].”
Wrenching change • LBJ could not have imagined in 1964 the United States of 2014, where workers have been replaced by technology, the U of U’s Perlich noted. “Entire categories of jobs have been wiped out.”
Even workers with education and specialized training have not gained economic ground over the past three decades, she said. “Middle-class people have been treading water since 1983.”
There is a clear trend toward “economic inequality,” helped along by tax policies for corporations, a dwindling labor movement and the drive for short-term profits.
“This has been a horrible, wrenching period for many Americans,” Perlich said.
And the War on Poverty slogs on.
LBJ’s War on Poverty goals:
Accelerate economic growth, maintain high employment, fight discrimination, improve regional economies, rehabilitate urban and rural communities, improve labor markets, expand educational opportunities, enlarge opportunities for youth, improve the nation’s health, promote adult education and training, and assist the aged and disabled.
Source: “Legacies of the War on Poverty,” the Russell Sage Foundation.