War on Poverty 50 years on, victory nowhere in sight

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More than anything else, it was a sign of the times: an age when the United States, still confident after the triumph of World War II and locked in an epic twilight struggle with the Soviet Union, dreamed big dreams and considered it possible to achieve huge national objectives.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, when he used his first State of the Union address, on January 8, 1964 – less than two months after JFK’s assassination – to launch the country on another major national initiative [War on Poverty], similar in scope and vision to the moon landing.

Five decades later, the war is far from won, and Uncle Sam is nowhere near resting. Back in 1964, 36 million Americans lived in poverty; today it’s close to 47 million. Of course, the U.S. population has grown dramatically over the last 50 years, and the percentage of Americans in poverty has declined in that time span, from 19 percent to 15 percent.

Still, that’s higher than at any point in the first decade of this millennium, when George W. Bush was president, and far from the record low of 11.1 percent achieved under President Nixon in 1973.

What’s more, the percentage of children living in poverty is essentially unchanged since 1964, and by some estimates, Uncle Sam has spent $15 trillion on anti-poverty programs over the last five decades. Indeed, as a percentage of federal outlays, such spending has soared by 286 percent since LBJ’s day.

“I think there’s no question that the War on Poverty that Lyndon Johnson declared 50 years ago Wednesday has made very important advances,” said Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, at a White House briefing this week. “There’s just no question….Over the last 50 years things have been done wrong, but I think we’ve learned from lessons.”

As evidence, Sperling cited dramatic improvements for African-Americans over the last 50 years, both in terms of their overall poverty rate and their high school graduation rates. “In 1963,” he said, “51 percent of African-Americans were in poverty and about 25 percent had graduated from high school.”

Today, those figures stand at around 27 percent and 62 percent, respectively; but those are still far below the poverty and high school graduation rates for non-Hispanic whites.

Economist Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute told Fox News he sees no major national politician intensively focused on what Strain believes is the core problem where poverty is concerned: chronic long-term unemployment and the viability of the labor market.

In March 1964, two months after LBJ’s clarion call, 87 percent of men between the ages of eighteen and sixty-four – the prime working years – were employed. By March 2012, that figure had sunk to 74 percent: less than three-quarters of the adult male population.

Population growth and other demographic changes, such as the increase in illegal immigration, have contributed to the absence of victory in the War on Poverty. So, too, has the change in political party in power in the White House every decade or so, a natural function of democracy that has nevertheless created a lurching effect in federal anti-poverty programs.

One other factor also bears mentioning: Radical changes in culture and faith since the 1960s, and the attendant consequences on family structures, earnings potential and government spending. In 1964, only 11 percent of Americans families with children were headed by a single parent. By 2012, that figure had risen to 35 percent: more than a third of all American households.

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