This month marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of an “unconditional war on poverty.” Over the next decade, Johnson and his successor, President Richard Nixon, initiated a series of government programs and policies for raising Americans’ living standards. Yet this month also marks over a quarter century since President Ronald Reagan’s 1988 announcement that the war on poverty was over, and that poverty had won. The next decade produced a retrenchment in federal anti-poverty programs culminating in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which shifted government priorities toward promoting married couple families as a solution to poverty. To mark the anniversaries of these very different approaches to the government’s role in poverty reduction, the Council on Contemporary Families circulated two briefing reports that put poverty reduction, poverty rates, and policy responses to poverty in perspective.
Reviewing anti-poverty efforts over the last 50 years in “Was the war on poverty a failure? Or are anti-poverty efforts swimming simply against a stronger tide?”, University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen examines the many early victories for the War on Poverty. Poverty fell significantly in the first decade of the program, with the most dramatic and long-lasting victory being the reduction of poverty among the elderly. Poverty rates of the elderly were more than halved in the first 15 years and have remained near record lows since then. By contrast, after falling throughout the 1960s and 1970s, poverty rates for children began to rise again in the 1980s, and are now near the high levels of the early 1960s when the War on Poverty began.
Cohen argues that these setbacks are the result of manufacturing sector and unionization declines that have been driving down wages for less-educated workers and increasing income inequality since the mid 1970s. These trends were reinforced by social policies that slashed funding to cities, cut back on investments in infrastructure, suppressed growth in the minimum wage, and reduced some important sources of assistance for low-income families. The outcome? Today the United States’ rate of child poverty (even after adjusting for frequently unmeasured government benefits) is 18 percent — much higher than any comparably rich country.
Many politicians blame the resurgence of poverty on the spread of unwed motherhood and conclude that promoting marriage among low-income individuals would do more to reduce poverty than government investments. But a companion piece to Cohen’s report, “Promoting Marriage among Single Mothers: An Ineffective Weapon in the War on Poverty?” by Ohio State University sociologist Kristi Williams, suggests that the reality is more complicated. Williams summarizes new research indicating that efforts to get impoverished single mothers to marry are unlikely to make much of a dent in poverty rates and may even have some harmful outcomes for mothers and children alike.
Stephanie Coontz, historian and CCF co-chair, heralds these reports as a useful corrective to two myths about poverty. “The first myth is that government can’t do anything about poverty. Cohen shows us where government programs have been uniquely effective in reducing poverty, even over the past three decades of poverty-producing economic trends, and where government could do much more, as many other governments are in fact doing.”
“The second myth,” Coontz contends, “is that getting more women married would solve poverty. But non-marriage is often an outcome of poverty as well as a contributor to it. And Williams shows that in some cases, marriage is actually risky for a woman who is already a single mother. Williams suggests alternative strategies that in combination with Cohen’s proposals may be more helpful in reducing poverty.”
Cohen’s report identifies specific government policies that could immediately decrease child poverty. Using analysis from the March 2013 Current Population Survey, Cohen shows how reducing payroll taxes on poor families would ease poverty by 1.6 percent. Reducing work-related expenses such as child care and transportation would decrease poverty by 2.6 percent. And eliminating out of pocket medical costs for poor families would cut poverty by 3.1 percent. The remainder of poverty reduction, according to Cohen, involves improving minimum wage and shifting jobs policies. He points us to the success of Great Britain, which has managed to almost halve child poverty over the past 13 years.
Williams identifies a government policy that does not work: marriage promotion. Williams’ briefing report, “Promoting Marriage among Single Mothers: An Ineffective Weapon in the War on Poverty?“, examines the conventional wisdom on single mothers and marriage promotion (get ’em married to solve poverty!), and demonstrates that promoting marriage has been an ineffective way of reducing poverty among single mothers and their children. She suggests that a more effective approach would be to focus on decreasing unintended or mistimed births through public education, increasing sexual and reproductive health resources, and providing early and comprehensive sexuality education.