NC Budget and Tax Center, Poverty and Policy Matters

Commemorating President Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty

 “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. … It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson, January 8, 1964

Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration to an unconditional War on Poverty, an effort that was announced during his 1964 State of the Union address. Far too many North Carolinians and Americans still live on the “outskirts of hope” and face the stark realities of poverty. With that said, poverty has fallen significantly over the last half-century (when using a comprehensive measure), illustrating the key role that public policies play in combating poverty and boosting economic security.

Johnson’s War on Poverty laid the foundation for the modern-day safety net, including Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, SNAP (formerly  known as food stamps), and a boost to Social Security benefits. Policymakers also provided funding towards elementary and secondary education, established the college work-study program, and provided loans for low- and moderate-income students.

The modern-day safety net cuts poverty nearly in half (see chart below) and reduces the depth of poverty among many families living moderately above the poverty line. In order to get a more accurate picture of how efforts to fight poverty are faring, one must look beyond the antiquated official poverty measure that omits a range of anti-poverty policies. Once correcting for these shortfalls, research reveals that the safety net reduced the number of Americans living in poverty from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012. This means the safety net helped 40 million people escape the grips of poverty.

Poverty Fallen Significantly Since the 1960s_CBPP Graphic_Jan 2014

Many pundits, in the Tar Heel state and beyond, will likely spend today asserting that poverty-reduction efforts have failed and likely point to the official poverty level to support their claims. But, when you examine more accurate poverty statistics as illustrated above, the evidence is clear that the War on Poverty launched during the Johnson era and those implemented thereafter—such as the Earned Income Tax Credit—have helped make substantial progress against poverty. The chart below captures how three of the most effective safety net programs helped keep poverty in check in 2012. These programs have lasting effects too, yielding lasting gains in children’s later health and education.

Safety Net Programs Keep Million out of Poverty_CBPP_Jan2014

Even if the anti-poverty armory currently in place has cut poverty nearly in half, without question, much more needs to be done to help further reduce poverty and hardship and promote economic opportunity. In coming up with policy solutions, however, the underlying structural problems in the national and state economies that are edging poverty upward must also be acknowledged. Improving the economy in a way in which gains are more equitably shared is the best way to address poverty—an effort that will relieve the safety net, which has been working overtime since the recession. This means addressing the jobs deficit, the boom in low-wage jobs and inadequate minimum wage, and ever-rising income inequality.

Over the next month, the NC Budget and Tax Center will take a serious look at the history of poverty in North Carolina and do some myth-busting about poverty using evidence-based research in a blog series. Stay tuned!


  1. LayintheSmakDown

    January 12, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Unfortunately like the other war he got us into…we are losing this one just as badly. Maybe Johnson is the worst president ever…but Barry is giving him a run for his money and has pulled ahead by a nose.

  2. LayintheSmakDown

    January 12, 2014 at 11:11 am

    And that graph is priceless….the billions and billions and billions (trillions by now?) to decrease poverty by what 3-4%. That is truly failure.

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