06 January 2014

What Was the "War on Poverty"?

This week marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson declaring a "war on poverty." The NYT reports:
Half a century after Mr. Johnson’s now-famed State of the Union address, the debate over the government’s role in creating opportunity and ending deprivation has flared anew, with inequality as acute as it was in the Roaring Twenties and the ranks of the poor and near-poor at record highs. 
Here is what President Johnson said in that inaugural address:

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.

It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.

Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and the local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts.

For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.

The program I shall propose will emphasize this cooperative approach to help that one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs. 
In subsequent posts I'll present some data relevant to evaluating the effectiveness of the "war on poverty." As a first step in thinking about policy evaluation, it is important to be precise about what it is being evaluated. The CEPR blog has a very a useful discussion of what, exactly, might be meant by the "war on poverty":
In an excellent new Russell Sage Foundation book on the war on poverty, Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger take a more historically informed approach, defining the war on poverty as:
"The full legislative agenda laid out in the 1964 State of the Union and in the eleven goals contained in chapter 2 of the 1964 Economic Report of the President, titled 'Strategy against Poverty'...  These goals include maintaining high employment, accelerating economic growth, fighting discrimination, improving regional economies, rehabilitating urban and rural communities, improving labor markets, expanding educational opportunities, enlarging opportunities for youth, improving the Nation’s health, promoting adult education and training, and assisting the aged and disabled."
By their definition, the war on poverty includes 16 major pieces of legislation passed during the Johnson administration between 1964 and 1968 (for a list, see their very helpful Table 1.1 in the first chapter of the book, which is available on line).
In subsequent posts this week I will develop several themes. One is that the "war on poverty" has been a remarkable success, largely due to the government programs initially passed in the 1960s and described above. The second theme is that evaluation of progress with respect to poverty is hampered by a focus on official "poverty rates" produced by the US government. They do more to obscure than clarify.

Both themes are of direct relevant to ongoing current debates about economic growth, inequality and the role of government policies in both.