In 1967, poverty researcher Peter Edelman visited some of the poorest communities in America. He was shocked by what he found. Mechanization had eliminated agriculture jobs across the South, and families were left with no source of income and no safety net to protect them from hunger and severe malnutrition. Edelman saw children with bellies distended by famine and sores that wouldn’t heal.
Edelman was on the front lines of the “War on Poverty,” which President Lyndon Johnson launched 50 years ago this month. Johnson sought to end poverty’s “wastage of resources and human lives.” To do this, the President and Congress expanded education and jobs programs, enacted ongoing nutrition assistance, and created Medicare and Medicaid to ensure access to health care for seniors and the very poor.
In the years since, both Democratic and Republican administrations have strengthened some important strands of the safety net. The earned income tax credit, which helps families earning low wages make ends meet, was established under President Nixon and expanded under Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Clinton. President Obama temporarily expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and unemployment insurance during the Great Recession.
That brings us to today. Fifty years after President Johnson took on the challenge, much has improved for the poorest Americans. Although many families still struggle to put enough food on the table, we don’t see the kind of mass hunger that existed before the modern food stamp program. Almost twice as many Americans would be living in poverty today if not for the safety net developed by President Johnson and his successors.
We’ve made progress, but the struggle isn’t over. More than 500,000 Oklahomans are still living in poverty, according to the most recent data. It’s especially troubling that poverty is at its highest among families with children younger than five years old.
Unfortunately, some critics want to move us in the wrong direction by cutting away at the safety net. They cite the official poverty rate, which is nearly the same as 50 years ago, as evidence that public services like SNAP and Medicaid are not reducing poverty.
This argument misses some key facts. First, the official poverty rate only considers cash income before taxes, so it leaves out the biggest safety net programs — SNAP, health insurance, and the earned income tax credit. Counting these benefits as income and adjusting for the cost of living creates a more accurate picture. A recently developed “Supplemental Poverty Measure” that takes these factors into account shows the poverty rate dropped to 16 percent in 2012 from 26 percent in 1967.
Another factor that critics of the War on Poverty overlook is that many Americans are still being left out from the benefits of economic growth. Two years after the Great Recession officially ended, more than 10 million Americans had jobs but still lived in poverty. Many more earned just enough to be one health crisis or layoff away from poverty. These “working poor” Americans include many restaurant workers, construction workers and caregivers in nursing homes and child care centers.
Wages for these workers have stagnated for decades, even though the economy as a whole has grown and a huge amount of wealth has flooded up to the top earners. We need to do more through education, science and infrastructure investment, stronger workplace protections and a higher minimum wage to secure an economy that works for everyone who wants to work. We don’t have that economy today, so the safety net is needed now more than ever.
Fortunately, the days of American famine are behind us. We must stay committed to the War on Poverty to make sure those days don’t return.
GENE PERRY is policy director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute (http://okpolicy.org). He wrote this piece as part of a news package about the war on poverty created by Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit state news organization. Read an additional column on this topic by Tina Korbin Dzurisin in Tuesday’s The Edmond Sun.