President Lyndon B. Johnson’s unconditional war on poverty in America would not be short or easy, he warned, and no single weapon or strategy would suffice.
The intervening five decades have not only proved him right, they also have shown which approaches are most successful.
Were it not for Medicaid, unemployment insurance, Head Start, food stamps and the many other programs LBJ set in motion 50 years ago today, the poverty level would be almost twice as high as it is – 16 percent of the population – with children and the elderly making up most of the difference. In the recent downturn, the level would have surged by at least 5 percentage points.
One of the most effective tools has been the earned income tax credit, a $55 billion program that rewards the working poor by refunding some of their income and payroll taxes. The credit – which has averaged about $3,000 for families with children – has helped reduce welfare rolls even more than the 1996 welfare-reform law did. This program, now geared toward single-parent families, could be expanded to help two-parent families and parents without child custody.
Congress could also lessen the disincentives to work or wed by not reducing anti-poverty benefits when a couple marries or one spouse’s income rises above a cutoff.
Nutrition programs are another effective poverty fighter. In 2012, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps) kept 5 million people out of poverty. School lunches did the same for 1.2 million children.
Fifty years ago, LBJ was motivated in part by politics. If politics is driving both parties to reach for solutions, that doesn’t make the goal less worthy. It may even result in a smarter war on poverty.