The War on Poverty at 50
Experts reflect on what went right and what went wrong with LBJ’s initiative.

President Lyndon Johnson


Stanley Carlson-Thies
In developed economies, even the most systematic private charity is insufficient, so government must act. But persistent poverty is more than a lack of money, and its ending takes more than money and services. Alas, LBJ’s War on Poverty, like the first big welfare expansion in the 1930s, did not rightly address the non-economic dimensions. Civil society — especially families, neighborhoods, and religious charities — was bypassed. Worse, some government programs harmed rather than rejuvenated essential institutions — think of AFDC’s damage to married families, urban renewal’s uprooting of functioning neighborhoods, and secularizing government-funding requirements that either excluded religious charities from partnerships or undermined their full vigor.

Doing nothing was no solution to real problems, but the War on Poverty, while bringing some relief, also helped to undermine structures, processes, and attitudes essential for long-term success in overcoming deeply rooted poverty.

Have we learned from experience? Are we doing better? Not much better. The national policy debate seems to have regressed to “more government vs. less government,” leaving civil society marginalized. We have little idea of how to help neighborhoods flourish. The consensus that started to form in the 1990s about the necessity of strong marriages and families — moms and dads — has been disrupted by other relationship passions.

One bright spot: The faith-based initiative of the Clinton, Bush, and now Obama years has highlighted the vital role of religious organizations, and its reforms, such as Charitable Choice, have lifted the secularizing pressures from partnerships.

But five decades after LBJ, we still have a long way to go to understand the non-economic aspects of persistent poverty. And tragically, contemporary government’s insistence on enforcing progressive values is undermining the very civil-society institutions that need to flourish.

Stanley Carlson-Thies is president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.

Grant E. Collins II
To fight injustice, or in this case for the poor, is always noble, and there are varying opinions on how effective some of the approaches are in the end. What we can appreciate about the War on Poverty was a recognition that something needed to be done and that our government leaders were engaged and met the spirit of the challenge with the methods of that era. Today the issue isn’t poverty as much as it is a wider segment of society not flourishing. Today, many more, even with jobs, degrees, cars, and garages, also feel this sense of injustice. Poverty is as much a state of mind as it is the lack of material goods and resources, and as such, many of us are poor even with a paycheck. Our challenge today includes addressing the issues of poverty while also addressing the reasons, causes, and policies that keep so many more from flourishing.

Grant E. Collins II served as deputy director of the Office of Family Assistance at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Nicholas Eberstadt
According to official U.S.-government figures, there has been no progress whatever in reducing the prevalence of absolute poverty in our country for nearly half a century. For the year 2012, the Census Bureau counted 15 percent of the total U.S. population as having incomes below the fixed and unchanging official federal poverty line, which is adjusted only for inflation. Back in 1966, America’s “poverty rate” by that same measure was reported to be 14.7 percent.

(The poverty index used for such readings was devised during 1964 at the very start of the War on Poverty, was publicly unveiled in early 1965, and ever after has been the main government calculation deployed to track our country’s performance against poverty.)

If these statistics accurately reflected conditions in real-life America, they would be cause for alarm, outrage, and maybe even something much like political revolution, considering the enormous increases in per capita income and per capita wealth the nation enjoyed over that same period. But these figures are nonsense numbers, generated by an obviously cracked algorithm. Which is why no one in Washington (or in numerate reaches of the academy) really takes them seriously. 

Here is the fundamental and irremediable flaw with America’s official poverty rate: It measures the wrong thing. It assumes that annual income is the yardstick for determining living standards. In truth people’s living standards are always determined by annual consumption: expenditures, asset draw-downs, gifts, non-cash transfers, and all the rest.

Income levels are a miserable predictor of consumption levels for the bottom ranks in America today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual spending power of the poorest quintile in the U.S. income distribution is well over twice their annual pre-tax reported income — and that mismatch has been gradually widening since at least the early 1970s. (And we don’t even bother to estimate total consumption for the poorest quintile, including things such as Medicaid and other public non-cash transfers.)

If we had a decent set of official poverty metrics and social indicators, we would know that the sort of material deprivation that afflicted a troubling portion of our society back in the early 1960s has been essentially eradicated — and was in fact eradicated some time ago — but that disturbing pathologies are spreading new forms of misery in our land nonetheless.

Our government officially declared war on poverty in January 1964. That long war has been the occasion of many tragedies. One of them is that we have used a broken compass to guide our long and expensive campaign to redress material want, and we have begrudged the relatively trivial outlays that could have allowed us to get a better statistical sense of our bearings.

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.

Chester E. Finn Jr.
Forgive an aging education-reformer’s reminiscences, but LBJ’s declaration of war on poverty shaped the next 50 years of my life.

I was a Harvard undergraduate at the time, dabbling in social reform and social action via a slew of student-volunteer programs in schools, settlement houses, public-housing projects, and hospitals; not studying very hard; and expected by my family to join my father and grandfather in their Dayton law firm.

Then two things happened.

Professor Edward Banfield brought into his course on “urban problems” a young assistant secretary of labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose enthusiastic explanation of the nascent “war” fired my imagination — and introduced the man who would later become my doctoral adviser, chief mentor, and the source of three riveting jobs.

And Lyndon Johnson’s oft-stated conviction that education was the surest route to vanquishing poverty engaged both the do-gooder inclinations of a 20-year-old and reflected what I was seeing among children in poor neighborhoods of Cambridge and Boston and the miserable schools they attended.

Between LBJ and Pat Moynihan, I now had a sense of mission. So I applied to the ed school instead of the law school. And on it went from there.

In retrospect, I have no career regrets, but I’ve also learned a ton about the limits of formal education (which makes up a relatively small part of a person’s life); about the difficulty of changing our major institutions; about the hazards of inflating what Uncle Sam, in particular, can do to bring about such changes; about the predilection of our politics to place adult interests ahead of children’s; and about poverty’s dogged capacity to defeat just about every intervention that a free society can devise.

In short, I became both an education reformer and a neoconservative (back in the days when that honorable term had more to do with domestic than foreign policy).

Older. Wiser (or at least chastened). Less confident — but still determined.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.