In January of 1964, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional War on Poverty,” which played a part in cutting the nation's poverty rate in half betweem 1960 and 1973. Fifty years after launching the initiative, however, more than 46 million Americans, including 16 million children, are still living in poverty.
Although current opinions about the original War on Poverty's effectiveness are mixed, most Americans agree that the poverty rate today, at 15 percent, is largely due to a failed economy, according to a recent poll and report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Half in Ten, a campaign of the CAP Action Fund focused on cutting the U.S. poverty rate by half in 10 years.
The poll showed that many Americans continue to face economic hardship, with 61 percent of Americans reporting that their family's income is falling behind the cost of living. Just 8 percent of those polled said they are getting ahead, while 29 percent said they were staying even.
But without various War on Poverty policies, such as Social Security, nutrition aid, housing vouchers and other programs, the poverty rate would be nearly double what it is today, argued Peter Edelman, director of the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy at Georgetown University.
"Our problems would be far worse if we had not taken the steps we have taken," he said on a recent press call about the new CAP poll and report.
So why are more than 46 million people still living in poverty?
"Primarily because we've become a low-wage nation," Edelman responded. "There's certainly other factors, but the failure of our labor market is really at the heart of it."
Nearly two in three Americans, or 64 percent, believe that most people who live in poverty today are poor because "their jobs do not pay enough, they lack quality health insurance and education, and things cost too much for them to save and get ahead," according to the survey of 2,052 adults, which included oversamples of African Americans, Latinos and Millennials aged 18 to 34.
On the other hand, the poll found that 25 percent of Americans believe most people who live in poverty are poor "because they make bad decisions or act irresponsibly in their own lives."
For a family of four, the federal poverty line is defined as an annual income of $23,550. In the poll, Americans on average said they believed an annual income of $30,000 for a family of four would qualify as officially living in poverty, adding that it takes about $55,000 for a four-person household to live safely in the middle class.
"Most respondents in the focus groups were shocked to hear that the official poverty line was as low as it is," the report reads. "Many suggested that it represents a disconnect with the reality of rising prices over the past few years."
Those polled in the survey appeared to have at least some connection to poverty, with 54 percent reporting that someone in their immediate family is poor. Breaking the numbers down further, 65 percent of African-American respondents and 59 percent of Latinos surveyed said they had a direct connection to poverty.
"The message is clear: the War on Poverty hasn’t failed; rather, our economy has failed," said Half in Ten's Director Melissa Boteach in a statement. "Rising inequality, unequal economic growth, insufficient access to education and jobs, and low wages are preventing the United States from having a vibrant economy in which all have a fair shot to get ahead.”
Income inequality has grown significantly over time, with the top 1 percent receiving 95 percent of the gains in income since 2009. Meanwhile, the U.S. median household income, adjusted for inflation, has dropped 4.4 percent since the great recession ended four years ago.
"Rising income inequality also deepens the racial wealth gap, which we have been fighting for generations to undo," the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which was not involved with the CAP poll or report, wrote in a statement marking the War on Poverty's 50th anniversary earlier this month.
For white families, the median wealth in 2009 was $113,149, compared to just $6,325 for Latino families and an even lower $5,677 for black families, the center's statement noted. Between 2007 and 2010, Hispanic families lost 44 percent of their wealth and black families lost 31 percent. White families, however, lost just 11 percent of their wealth during this time period.
“During the past four years, since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, Congress has done virtually nothing to advance justice or opportunity for the 46 million people—15 percent of all Americans—who are living in poverty in the United States," said Dan Lesser, director of economic justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. "Congress has an obligation to do more.”
Overall, the CAP survey found that 86 percent of Americans believe the government has a responsibility to use its resources to fight poverty. And 7 in 10 Americans said they would support "the president and Congress setting a national goal to cut poverty in the United States in half within 10 years."
Out of 11 policies meant to help reduce poverty, five garnered support from least 80 percent of the adults polled. Those policies include universal pre-K, helping low-wage workers afford child care, expanding nutrition assistance, boosting the number of publicly-funded college scholarships and increasing the minimum wage while tying it to inflation.
"The harsh negative attitudes about the poor that defined political discussions in the 80s and 90s have given way to the public recognition that many Americans, poor and middle class alike, are facing pressures trying to stay afloat and get ahead in the difficult economy," said John Halpin, senior fellow at CAP and lead author of the poll and report. "At the same time, supporters of any poverty efforts should not be complacent and should recognize that although Americans back government action to reduce poverty, questions remain about the structure and scope of these efforts and how effective they have been over time and how they might be improved."
The report also stressed that various programs designed to help struggling Americans are facing potential setbacks in Congress. For example, federal proposals are looking to slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And more recently, Congress allowed unemployment insurance benefits to expire for 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans.
“At this 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty, there are signs that if America’s leaders take on poverty by name, the country itself may be ready to take large scale action against poverty," the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law President John Bouman said. "We should make this a time that will have its own anniversary 50 years from now as a watershed in the successful fight against poverty.”
The CAP online and telephone survey was conducted on November 12 through November 26. The responses based on the full sample have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.