Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Fight Against Poverty

Michael J. Gerson


It has been 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson declared an unconditional war on poverty, and the result is still hotly debated.  Conservatives tend to dismiss it as failure; liberals declare it a success. The reality, as usual, is more mixed and complex than a shorthand political judgment.  

Some Great Society programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, are great achievements of compassion – but also in need of serious reform.  Johnson’s expansion of Social Security benefits took millions of seniors out of poverty – but this system is now under serious demographic strains. 

The war on poverty was most successful in helping the elderly – their poverty rates sharply declined.  It was less effective in helping young mothers with children.  The expansion of Aid to Families with Dependent Children created a cascade of unintended consequences.  It took a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, to eventually sign welfare reform including time limits and work requirements. 

The war on poverty has provided essential help to tens of millions of Americans.  Yet it did not defeat poverty – the poverty rate, with some fluctuations, has been steady for decades.   America spends about $1 trillion a year on transfer programs at all levels of government.  And there are still more than 40 million people below the poverty line. 

Some of this is not the fault of those who designed LBJ’s War on Poverty.  They could not have foreseen two massive trends that would quickly complicate their work.  The first is the revolution of technology and globalization, which drained decently-paid, lower-skilled jobs from many parts of the country and placed a premium on education.  American educational institutions, to put it mildly, have not risen to the challenge.

The second trend is the shattering of family structures across the working class.  Single mothers naturally find it harder to work full-time – the surest path out of poverty – and have fewer resources to invest in their children.   

The result of these mutually-reinforcing developments is the economic isolation of many communities and a marked decline in social mobility for millions of Americans – in spite of all the money spent on medical entitlements, retirement benefits and welfare programs. These efforts are compassionate and essential, but they are obviously not sufficient. 

A renewed war on poverty will require improved labor markets – both expecting and rewarding work, and reaching out to millions of people who have left the labor market entirely.  And it will require creatively strengthening mediating institutions – including two-parent families and faith-based non-profits – that pass along human capital and prepare children for success in a difficult economy.  An effective fight against poverty must use government to mobilize the essential work of institutions beyond government. 

These approaches will require some ideological concessions from conservatives and from liberals.  But after half a century we should agree, at least, that outcomes matter more than intentions or ideology.  And good outcomes will require new thinking. 


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”