War on Poverty Retrospective by Haveman, Blank, Smeeding, Wallace, and Moffitt

June 25, 2015

MADISON—Leading poverty scholars provide a definitive analysis of the measurement, trends, and policies related to the War on Poverty in a summer 2015 Journal of Public Policy Analysis and Management article.

President Lyndon B. Johnson on “Poverty Tour” shakes hands with a resident of Appalachia, May 7, 1964. Credit: LBJ Library serial no. 225-9-WH64, photo by Cecil Stoughton

President Lyndon B. Johnson on "Poverty Tour" shakes hands with a resident of Appalachia, May 7, 1964.

Credit: LBJ Library serial no. 225-9-WH64, photo by Cecil Stoughton.

Robert Haveman, Rebecca Blank, Timothy Smeeding, and Geoffrey Wallace, also of the La Follette School of Public Affairs, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Robert Moffitt of Johns Hopkins University, all affiliates of IRP, present a historical perspective of the nation's antipoverty efforts.

Since 1965, public support has shifted away from cash income support to in-kind and tax-related benefits such as food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which eroded the safety net for the most disadvantaged in American society, the authors note.

Haveman and colleagues also describe how poverty is analyzed and measured. In contrast to the official poverty measure, a newer supplemental measure accounts for noncash and tax-related benefits. This supplemental measure finds that poverty has declined, rather than remained flat as the official measure suggests.

The article uses both measures to present snapshots of a variety of subgroups of the poor, including children, female-headed families, and persons of color, and it documents antipoverty program expenditures.

"Although the effectiveness of government antipoverty transfers is debated, our findings indicate that the growth of antipoverty policies has reduced the overall level of poverty, with substantial reductions among the elderly, disabled, and blacks," the authors note.

Looking at work that remains to be done, the authors state, "However, the poverty rates for children, especially those living in single-parent families, and families headed by a low-skill, low-education person, have increased. Rates of deep poverty (families living with less than one-half of the poverty line) for the nonelderly population have not decreased, reflecting both the increasing labor market difficulties faced by the low-skill population and the tilt of means-tested benefits away from the poorest of the poor."

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—Deborah Johnson, djohnson@ssc.wisc.edu, (608) 262-7779