Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson (D) declared a War on Poverty. Not surprisingly, the milestone has triggered conflicting assertions from the political right and left. Ripped from the headlines, exhibits A and B follow:
“War on Poverty at 50—Despite Trillions Spent, Poverty Won” (Fox News)
“The War on Poverty’s Surprising Success” (MSNBC)
Cue the pundits, and the result is a mostly unproductive debate over whether poverty-reduction efforts have worked … or not. This debate devolves wherein it’s less about poverty reduction and more about politics.
Clearly, the nation has spent trillions on programs that aim to address poverty, yet it still persists. On the flip side of the coin, without programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Medicaid and Medicare; federal work–study programs; subsidies for impoverished schools; and Head Start, poverty in America would be worse today and social costs would be significant.
If I had a magic wand, after winning the lottery and achieving world peace (in that order), I’d shift the debate about poverty reduction from “did these investments work?” to “how can these investments work better?” The nation substantially invests resources to combat poverty and its affects; however, the poverty-reduction system is large and bureaucratic, operates in silos and is aimed more at addressing individual’s symptoms rather than at breaking the generational cycle of poverty.
Consider this. Low educational attainment affects lifetime earnings potential, crime rates, health and well-being. It also affects teen pregnancy rates. And children who have parents with low educational attainment and low incomes are less likely to graduate from high school.
For the past 50 years, we have invested in programs that aim to address challenges people face, and that has been good. We are improving by shifting toward strategies that aim to help people to overcome their individual challenges in order to succeed. Yet the cycle of poverty will likely persist until we bundle these programs for individuals to holistically serve families with low incomes across multiple generations.