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50 Years After the War on Poverty: Looking Beyond Success or Failure

Erasing poverty

By Roberta Downing, PhD (Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer, APA Public Interest Directorate – Government Relations Office)

Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a “War on Poverty,” an effort to end poverty among all Americans. This anniversary has already sparked debate amongst policymakers about the impact that this sweeping initiative in the 1960s has had on poverty. However, recent polling shows that most Americans do not know what the War on Poverty is.

What Is the War on Poverty?

In the 1960s, there was a national outcry about poverty and racial inequality. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union Address declared a “War on Poverty” stating:

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.

Following this speech, within a span of about four years (1964-1968), 16 different pieces of major federal legislation transformed many aspects of American life for both the poor and the middle class ranging from education, to health care, to increased access to opportunity. For example:

  1. Medicare and Medicaid, two national health programs (one for Americans over age 65 and another for low-income children, pregnant women, and families), were created.

  2. Critical nutrition programs like the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs and food stamps (now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or “SNAP”) have their roots in the War on Poverty.

  3. The War on Poverty comprised legislation establishing Head Start, low-income housing, Community Action Programs, workforce development, community health centers, and other antipoverty programs.

Many of these programs continue to lift millions of low-income Americans out of poverty and also help middle class Americans.

What is the relevance of the War on Poverty today?

Thought leaders and Members of Congress have engaged in a debate about who “won” the War on Poverty and whether these initiatives were a success or failure. However, given psychologists’ understanding of the complexity of social issues, that framework may not be helpful in reflecting on this 50th anniversary. Rather, we should instead think about what our country would be like if we did not have these programs.

  1. Can you imagine having to pay out-of-pocket for your elderly parents’ or grandparents’ health care (a benefit that Medicare currently provides)?

  2. Do you think that all young children – regardless of parental income – should have access to immunizations and wellness visits to their doctors (which is a benefit that Medicaid and community health centers provide to low-income children)?

  3. Would you feel content to live in a country where children in poor communities have bellies swollen from malnutrition (extreme malnutrition did exist in America prior to expansions of the food stamp program in the 1960s and 70s)?[1]

  4. Do we want every child in America to have the opportunity to live up to their fullest potential by accessing Head Start or the National School Lunch Program if they need it?

Unfortunately, many of these and other safety net programs are under attack in Congress, most recently with bills that would cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (formerly “food stamps”). Other safety net programs like Head Start and housing assistance have experienced devastating cuts due to sequestration and 1.3 million unemployed workers were cut off their unemployment insurance benefits on December 28th due to congressional inaction, even though unemployment remains high and there are still three unemployed workers for every job opening.

There is no question that poverty remains a pervasive problem in America. Fifteen percent of Americans (i.e., 46.5 million people) live below the poverty line (which is under $19,000 per year for a family of three), including 22% of all children. But that does not mean that federal antipoverty programs do not work – the poverty rate would have been twice as high in 2012 if not for programs like Social Security, SNAP, unemployment insurance, and low-income tax credits.

Too many Americans are also living in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $2 per day, which is a World Bank definition of poverty in developing countries. The number of U.S. households living on less than $2 per person per day increased by more than 50% in recent years from 636,000 in 1996 to 1.46 million in 2011. For children, the number in extreme poverty also doubled between 1996 and 2011, going from 1.4 million to 2.8 million. It is shocking to realize that, with the wealth that exists in our country, families are surviving on so little.

We cannot talk about poverty without also addressing race, ethnicity, and gender. Communities of color experience significantly higher poverty rates than whites. In 2012, 10% of whites were living below the poverty line compared to 27% of African Americans and 26% of Latinos. Women also experience higher poverty rates than men, particularly single mothers, 31% of whom are living below the poverty line.

What Are the Next Steps?

Clearly, poverty is still a problem in our country.  Some policymakers want to use the anniversary of the War on Poverty as a platform to argue that we need to cut low-income programs, suggesting that they do not “work.” However, the data are not on their side. Poverty has fallen significantly since the late 1960s particularly among children and the elderly, and today’s antipoverty programs, many of which have origins in the War on Poverty, cut poverty in half, keeping 41 million people (including nine million children) out of poverty in 2012 alone.

Instead of wading into debates about whether or not the War on Poverty was a “success” or “who won the War on Poverty,” we should instead focus on what the War on Poverty accomplished and what our country would be like without the legislative achievements of that time.

We also need to reflect on what kind of country we want to live in – one in which a fifth of our children live with far too little while those at the top arguably receive much more than they need, or one where everyone has access to opportunity and the basics in life (e.g., safe and secure housing, nutrition, health care, and high quality schools)?

We should also take this opportunity to think about what more needs to be done. How can each of us, with our access to resources and the privilege of our psychological knowledge and education, play a role in alleviating an unacceptably high rate of poverty-related suffering in our country, whether through research, direct service, program development, or clinical practice?


Roberta Downing, PhD is a Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer with the APA Public Interest Directorate Government Relations Office. Dr. Downing is a former APA Congressional Fellow (2004-2005), working for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. She was also a healthcare staffer for Senator Brown of Ohio. Most recently, Dr. Downing was a Senior Legislative Associate at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.


[1] Watch an excellent, short video describing the history of the food stamp program.

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