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Kristof: Real progress in a 50-year-old war on poverty

  • **FILE** President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, center left, leave the home in Inez, Ky., of Tom Fletcher, a father of eight who told Johnson he'd been out of work for nearly two years, in this April 24, 1964, file photo. The president visited the Appalachian area in Eastern Kentucky to see conditions firsthand and announce his War on Poverty from the Fletcher porch. (AP Photo/FILE)

America's war on poverty turned 50 years old this week, and plenty of people have concluded that, as President Ronald Reagan put it: "We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won." That perception shapes the right's suspicion of food stamps, minimum-wage raises and extensions of unemployment benefits.

A reader named Frank posted on my Facebook page: "All the government aid/handouts in the world will not make people better parents. This is why the ideas from the left, although always made with the best of intentions, never work. . . . All of this aid is wasted."

Yet a careful look at the evidence suggests that such a view is flat wrong. In fact, the first lesson of the war on poverty is that we can make progress against poverty but that it's an uphill slog.

The most accurate measures, using Census Bureau figures that take account of benefits, suggest that poverty rates have fallen by more than one-third since 1968. There's a consensus that without the war on poverty, other forces (such as mass incarceration, a rise in single mothers and the decline in trade unions) would have lifted poverty much higher.

A Columbia University study suggests that without government benefits, the poverty rate would have soared to 31 percent in 2012. Indeed, an average of 27 million people were lifted annually out of poverty by social programs between 1968 and 2012, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

The best example of how government antipoverty programs can succeed involves the elderly. In 1960, about 35 percent of older Americans were poor. In 2012, 9 percent were. That's because senior citizens vote, so politicians listened to them and buttressed programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

In contrast, children are voiceless, so they are the age group most likely to be poor today. That's a practical and moral failure.

I don't want anybody to be poor, but, if I have to choose, I'd say it's more of a priority to help kids than seniors. In part, that's because when kids are deprived of opportunities, the consequences can include a lifetime of educational failure, crime and underemployment.

Research from neuroscience underscores why early interventions are so important. Early brain development turns out to have lifelong consequences, and research from human and animal studies alike suggests that a high-stress early childhood in poverty changes the physical brain in subtle ways that impair educational performance and life outcomes.

A careful review of antipoverty programs in a new book, "Legacies of the War on Poverty," shows that many of them have a clear impact -#8212; albeit sometimes not as great an impact as advocates hoped.


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