50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty this Month

Jan. 8, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s famous declaration of “War on Poverty.” In the last 50 years, the American economy has suffered and survived many crippling recessions, including the most recent in 2007-2009. In 1969, five years after the beginning of the War on Poverty, 13.7 percent of Americans were poor. In 2012 the official poverty rate was 15.0 percent.

While the poverty rate appears to have changed little, we are getting much better at measuring it. Poverty is not a simple thing to measure. Rather, poverty takes many forms, and can sneak up on a family unexpectedly—incited by an unforeseen medical expense or broken down car. The multifaceted nature of poverty is what led experts to create the Supplemental Poverty Measure. The original poverty measure was created in 1963 and is roughly measured by the cost of food for a family multiplied by three, adjusted for inflation. The Supplemental Poverty Measure takes into consideration the intricacies of a family’s budget including taxes and tax credits, in-kind benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps), medical and work expenses, and an adjustment for geographic location. All of these additions serve to paint a more full and accurate picture of poverty in America.

Globalization and technological advancements have made our world more connected, but income inequality in America is growing. The years 1928 and 2007 marked the most concentrated periods of income inequality in United States history. During these years, 23 percent of all income went to the top one percent of earners.

However, there are ways to remedy the situation. In the realm of education, America’s universities are still the best in the world. Additionally, we know more about what works in education and specifically, the times in the life of a child that are most critical for learning. We know that 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs before kindergarten, and that investments in early childhood education programs will yield between $4 and $9 for every dollar invested.

Furthermore, we are also close to the anniversary of the Perry Preschool Project, which ran between 1962 and 1967 in Ypsilanti, Mich. While the Perry experiment has flaws, it marks the beginning of an interest in early childhood programming and policy. President Barack Obama echoed this interest in his State of the Union address Feb. 12, 2013 when he stated that every child should have access to high quality preschool services.

Given these considerations, the War on Poverty has not been won since President Johnson’s time, nor has it been lost. Rather, we have become much better at defining poverty and its symptoms, and are thus better-equipped to start making lasting progress.

This post was written by Monica Bandy, education policy analyst for the Alliance for Children and Families Public Policy Office. She is a graduate student and a former Head Start teacher, who has been closely monitoring proposed early childhood education reform.

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