The War on Poverty at 50
- January 7, 2014
“On the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, we can be thankful for important progress we’ve made in reducing poverty in America and Ohio,” said Amy Hanauer, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio. “Today, the safety net cuts poverty nearly in half and provides relief to many poor and near-poor people and families.”
When measured using a comprehensive poverty measure, poverty has fallen significantly over the last half-century. Since the mid-1960s, average incomes of the poorest fifth of Americans have risen significantly, infant mortality has dropped sharply, and severe child malnutrition has largely disappeared.
Nevertheless, poverty and hardship remain high, with millions of Americans struggling to put food on the table or a roof over their heads. More should be done to strengthen efforts to reduce poverty and hardship and promote economic opportunity.
Under a version of the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) that uses today’s poverty standards (starting with the SPM poverty line for 2012 and adjusting for inflation back to 1967), the overall poverty rate has declined substantially — from 26 percent to 16 percent between 1967 and 2012. 
- This research from a team at Columbia University shows that poverty among children fell from 29 percent to 19 percent under this measure. Among the elderly, it fell from 47 percent to 15 percent.
- If government benefits are not considered, today’s poverty rate (using the SPM) would be 29 percent; when those benefits are considered, the rate falls to 16 percent.
- In 2012, government benefits and the tax system reduced the number of people in poverty by 40 million. But nearly 36 million of these people would have still been poor if the safety net in 2012 were only as effective at keeping people out of poverty as it was in 1964.
- A recent study found that disadvantaged children in the 1960s and 1970s with access to food stamps in early childhood and whose mothers had access during their pregnancy were less likely to have stunted growth, be diagnosed with heart disease, or be obese than those who had lacked access to this nutritional assistance. The children also were 18 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school.
This Chart Book by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities provides more data, and Amy Hanauer is available to discuss the anniversary of the war on poverty.
 The researchers also measured poverty using a different poverty line that’s based on what people spent for basic necessities such as food and shelter in different years, rather than based on what people spend today and adjusted back for inflation. This method results in a lower poverty line in 1964, reflecting the lower living standards at that time. As a result, under this measure, poverty still has fallen since 1967, but the decline is more modest because the starting point is lower.