NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Have We Won the War on Poverty?

September 17, 2014

Since Lyndon Johnson's launching of the War on Poverty in 1964, America has spent $22 trillion in taxpayer dollars on programs aimed at reducing poverty. Adjusting for inflation, this means that the United States has spent three times as much on the War on Poverty as it spent on actual military wars since the American Revolution.  

But while the United States today spends 16 times more on anti-poverty programs than it did when the War on Poverty began, it has little to show for it, as the poverty rate has remained relatively flat. Why? According to Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation, part of the answer is due to the fact that the Census Bureau does not look at government transfer spending when calculating poverty. As a result, individuals benefiting from government spending are still counted as poor, even when they are receiving taxpayer dollars that effectively raise their incomes.   

How poor are the poor? The authors explain that the poor today have very different living conditions than one might expect based on official poverty reports. In fact:

  • Eighty percent of households classified as poor have air conditioning.
  • Seventy-five percent of poor households have an automobile, while almost one-third have at least two cars or trucks.
  • Two-thirds of poor households have cable or satellite television, while half of all poor households have personal computers.
  • More than half of the poor have a video game system in their homes.

Similarly, Rector and Sheffield point out that hunger is not a major problem for the poor in America. According to a 2009 USDA survey, 96 percent of poor parents said their children were never hungry based on an inability to afford food, and 82 percent of adults reported never having been hungry in the previous year based on lack of funds to purchase food.

Lastly, housing statistics paint a similar picture:

  • Only 4 percent of the poor become homeless during the course of a year, and less than 10 percent live in mobile homes or trailers.
  • The typical poor individual in America actually has more living space than the average -- not poor -- individual in the United Kingdom, Sweden, France or Germany.

Even with these advances, Rector and Sheffield write that the War on Poverty cannot be labeled a success. Not only were incomes and standards of living already rising prior to Johnson's war, but what has resulted from the War on Poverty effort is a massive welfare system that encourages dependency rather than self-sufficiency.

Source: Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, "The War on Poverty After 50 Years," Heritage Foundation, September 15, 2014.


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