University of Wisconsin–Madison
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The rise and fall of poverty as a policy issue

Poverty as a concern has been with us for a long time. The fact that the issue has endured so long is a testament to just how compelling and contentious it is. And why is it so compelling, to us policy wonks at least? Well, poverty is what we call a “wicked social problem” where we are confused about: (1) the nature of the problem; (2) the theories and evidence brought to bear on the issue; (3) the ends or goals we are trying to achieve; and (4) the means for achieving those ends. I am reminded of a story I told at my retirement party. I noted what a marvelous career I had fallen into, a career where I got to fly around the country to work with the best and brightest on some of society’s most vexatious problems; poverty and welfare reform. It was like working in a professional candy store with all sorts of policy delights laid out before me. It was fun but also hard. Think about this: Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon within a decade, and we did it; Johnson launched a war on poverty, not such a good result. We often date our national focus on poverty as a salient public policy issue to the 1960s, but there is, of course, a much longer history. The “poverty as a public issue” story is not unimodal, rising once to national prominence and then fading. It is cyclical, rather, rising and falling several times. With rapid urbanization, industrialization, and a resurgence of immigration (particularly from southern and eastern European countries) after our Civil War, poverty emerged as an object of significant public attention. In response, there arose Charity Organization Societies (to bring some coherence to a confusing array of local efforts), the Scientific Charity Movement (to bring some rigor to the investigation of distressed families), and a number of Settlement Houses (to help mostly poor, ethnic immigrants integrate into American society). With the exception of a Civil War Pensions program, virtually all aid to the poor was local, much of it private, and all of it disorganized. Above all, a fundamental aspect of the subsequent national debate about poverty was already evident: the distinction between poverty and pauperisms, between institutional or environmental explanations of poverty and those explanations based on perceived personal failings. It was a distinction between what was thought of as the “worthy” and the “unworthy” poor that would stay with us.

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Economic Support, Means-Tested Programs

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