The Long War on Poverty Will Be Won With Vision and Grit

Americans are drawn to those moments in history when they stood up for something big and important. The 50th anniversary of the Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty is one of those moments.

In his 1964 State of the Union Address, President Johnson launched the War on Poverty, beginning with these words:  “I will be brief, for our time is necessarily short and our agenda is already long.” Those words still ring true today. Poverty is still with us and when 20 percent of American children live in poverty, and one million go hungry every day, the agenda remains long.

President Johnson believed that government has the power and responsibility to protect the most vulnerable among us. In the 50 years since he declared the War on Poverty, this assumption has been called into question. In the eyes of some critics, government is not part of the solution; it is part of the problem. The War on Poverty, they say, ended in defeat, worsening the very problems it sought to alleviate.

Is this really true?

Studies sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2013 show a different picture. The War on Poverty has had some setbacks, but it has also had significant major victories. More important, the War on Poverty demonstrates enlightened government can be a thoughtful steward of a future where all Americans have a shot at a better life.

Since 1964 life expectancy has gone up for all Americans, poverty among the elderly has dramatically declined, integration among races has increased, hunger has decreased, child health has improved, early childhood programs have proven to have long-term beneficial effects, poor school districts have received much needed funds and technical support, and more Americans are going to college.

The positive results of well-executed poverty programs are even more apparent if viewed under the social science microscope. In the 1990s, David Grissmer and his colleagues conducted some novel and insightful research. They began by confirming a well-established fact: In looking at national test scores, students’ social and economic characteristics predict academic success more accurately than other factors.

But the analysts did not stop there. They engaged in a thought experiment: We know that from 1970 to 1990 there was a sharp increase in single-parent families and many families remained mired in poverty. What if we statistically pretended 1970 families had such 1990 characteristics?  Would we see scores fall even lower?  The surprising answer is no. The researchers found scores jumped and were associated with increased levels of parental education and smaller families.

When Grissmer and his colleagues looked directly at the 1990 NAEP scores, African-American students’ reading and math scores improved by more than twice what demographic factors could explain. For all minority students, math scores increased three times as much as demographic changes alone would lead us to expect.

Why? While we don’t know for sure, it’s reasonable to assume that increased funding for compensatory and bilingual education programs explain a significant part of the increases. As it turns out, Head Start and similar programs do make difference in the lives of our most vulnerable students.

No set of policies designed to alleviate decades of social neglect will be perfect. It is easy to find fault, more difficult to muster the patience, intellectual honesty, and perseverance needed to build on partial successes.  Big problems call out for big solutions and big solutions grow from experience and mutual support.

The last 50 years have seen huge shifts in the American economy and culture. The communications and knowledge revolutions are transforming the way we work, live and imagine the future. On the other hand, many of the challenges that dogged the country 50 years ago are still with us.

Technology, a new spirit of commitment to greater equality and deeper research have given us new tools with which to tackle poverty; we need only find the will and a way of working together for the greater good. As the War on Poverty demonstrates, Americans know how to stand together for something big and important.