Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty and worked with Congress to pass legislation designed to lower poverty levels and mitigate the effects of poverty on America's families. Not long after the war on poverty initiatives went into effect, and started showing significant results, conservatives went on the attack, attempting to weaken, defund or eliminate many of the policies that were working quite well. But the program was so effective that it still helped, and helps, keep tens of millions of Americans out of poverty. Now Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is weighing in on the war on poverty by claiming that it has failed, a smoke screen that he and others are using to continue their agenda to weaken or eliminate the war on poverty.
Two claims are central to conservative arguments that the war on poverty is a failure. The first is tortured logic that goes something like this: "We've been fighting the war on poverty for 50 years and poverty still exists, therefore it's a failure." Beyond the fact that this level of oversimplification doesn't belong in a serious conversation about poverty (we rarely "eliminate" problems, we improve the situation as the real world goal), it completely ignores the conservative responsibility for the programs not being as effective as they could be. From budget cuts to added red tape that makes it harder for citizens to participate in lifelines they are eligible for, conservatives have fought for decades to make the war on poverty less successful. To now claim that these lifelines are inherently flawed, as opposed to being sabotaged, is laughable at best.
The second claim relies on a dumbing-down of statistics that would make George W. Bush proud. By the official government poverty measure, the poverty rate in 1964 was 19%. In the latest version of that official number, the rate is 15%. The argument goes that 50 years is a long time and a lot of money to decrease poverty such a small amount. Ignoring the fact that 4% of the population is still millions of people, the official number is flawed. It only includes cash income. Over the years, more and more anti-poverty programs were moved away from direct cash payments to non-cash benefits and tax credits. So this official measure ignores many of the programs designed to keep Americans out of poverty. A more accurate measure is the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which accounts for non-cash income. The SPM shows a decline in the poverty rate more than twice that of the official number, from 26% in 1967 to 16% now.
It's clear that by any valid measurement, the war on poverty has been highly successful, particularly when you look at specific policies and what aspects of poverty they target. Here are a few key numbers that show the success of the war on poverty:
- Antipoverty programs kept 41 million Americans out of poverty in 2012, including 9 million children.
- Unemployment Insurance kept 2.5 million Americans out of poverty in 2012.
- The Supplemental Nutrition assistance Program (food stamps) kept 4.9 million Americans out of poverty, including 2.2. million children.
- The Earned Income and Child Tax Credits kept 10.1 million Americans out of poverty.
- Social Security kept 26.6 million people out of poverty in 2012, including 17 million seniors and more than 1 million children.
- Medicare, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program and health care subsidies help 150 million Americans get health insurance.
- The programs have long-term effects, too. Research shows that children who received food stamps in the 1960s and 1970s grew up healthier and were more likely to finish school. At age 19, they were 6% less likely to have stunted growth, 5% less likely to have heart disease, 16% less likely to be obese and 18% more likely to have completed high school.
This isn't to say that the war on poverty is an unqualified success or that more doesn't need to be done. But it is to say that conservative arguments about the war on poverty are highly inaccurate and the policy proposals put for by Rubio and his allies would do the exact opposite of what they claim and would undermine the progress that has been made in the last 50 years. More appropriate solutions to the problems of poverty would roll back right-wing assaults on antipoverty programs and would stimulate job creation and higher wages for working families. But don't hold your breath thinking that the Marco Rubios of the world will do the right thing.