Equity & Diversity

50 Years Later, War on Poverty Yields Mixed Success

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 22, 2014 11 min read
In the Trenches: President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, center left, leave a home in Inez, Ky., on a visit to the state’s Appalachian region in April 1964. They visited a father of eight who said he had been out of work for nearly two years.
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In 50 years, the faces and dynamics of child poverty in the United States have changed dramatically, but the nation’s approach to ending it is still based largely on the policies and programs laid out at the onset of the War on Poverty, launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson this month in 1964.

Many of those programs focus on community planning and social services for families in poverty: Medicaid, as the first national health-care program for low-income children; community health centers and the first wide-scale school immunization and screening programs; the predecessors to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Section 8 housing vouchers.

But in speech after speech, President Johnson presented education—from Head Start preschools and Title I grants to help level the educational field for disadvantaged students, to the forerunner of Pell Grants to help them afford college—as the linchpin of the Great Society efforts.

“Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom,” he said as he declared an “unconditional war on poverty” in his Jan. 8, 1964 State of the Union address. “The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.”

So where are we now? By the U.S. Census Bureau’s official count, 16 million children under 18, representing 23 percent of all American youngsters, lived in poverty in 1964. Child poverty dropped precipitously through the 1960s and 1970s, but then rose, dropped, and rose again. By 2012 ... 16 million children under 18 were living in poverty, representing a little less than 22 percent of all Americans in that age group. Ironically, this comes as scholars have learned more about the consequences of child poverty, both in the devastating long-term effects of chronic, “toxic” stress and deprivation in childhood, and the damage that widespread poverty and inequality can do to the nation’s economy.

ESEA Launch: President Lyndon B. Johnson (seated at table) addresses a crowd at the signing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 at his former one-room school, Junction Elementary School in Johnson City, Texas. The centerpiece education law established the Title I program for disadvantaged students.

“Johnson’s plan was originally to eliminate poverty, and by that metric the initiative was certainly a failure,” said Martha J. Bailey, an associate professor of economics and population studies at the University of Michigan, said in a symposium on the 2013 book she co-edited, The Legacy of the War on Poverty. “Poverty is still with us and income poverty rates are still high.”

By a more nuanced “supplemental” census poverty measure introduced in 2011, which looks at a broader range of income and expenses for families to calculate poverty, the picture of child poverty looks a bit more optimistic: about 13 million children in poverty rather than 16 million. An analysis by Columbia University researchers finds that without Great Society-related government supports, including housing aid, food stamps, and school meals, the proportion of all Americans in poverty in 2012 would have been 31 percent, nearly double the 16 percent figure based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure. The proportion of Americans in deep poverty—living on less than half of the federal poverty line—would have more than tripled to 19.2 percent, rather than 5.3 percent. Yet at the same time, social mobility has stagnated and the achievement gaps between wealthy and poor children remain wide.

Experts and historians continue to argue about the implementation, effectiveness, and social impact of the individual programs that have evolved out of the War on Poverty. But most agree that it is time to revisit how America as a society coordinates housing and health, racial and economic integration, and education from early childhood through college and career to give all children the opportunity to move out of poverty.

“Over 50 years we have lifted millions of families and children out of poverty. We have learned what works, but we have never done enough to end child poverty,” said Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children’s Defense Fund, which has tracked poverty and equity issues since the early days of the War on Poverty.

“If you look at the policy remedies proposed 50 years ago, there was maybe more optimism that it would work,” said David J. Deming, a Harvard University economist who is studying the long-term outcomes of education and health reforms. “I think people are more mindful of the limits of government now than they were.”

Lifting All Boats

What it means to be poor has changed since the 1960s, when many urban and rural poor had no indoor plumbing. The so-called “other America” of the poor, described in Michael Harrington’s blistering 1963 polemic of the same name, included generations who never went to school more than a few years and had no health care at all.

“You’re much better off being poor in 2013 than poor in 1913,” Mr. Deming said. “I think the gaps are widening, but the absolute level of human welfare is also rising across the board.”

Renée Wilson-Simmons, the director of the National Center for Children in Poverty in New York, argued that the expansion of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income and Aid to Families with Dependent Children that developed during those years, along with the predecessors to workforce-related supports such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, have kept more than 5 million children out of poverty by helping their families pay for basic needs.

According to research by Chloe R. Gibbs, an assistant professor of public policy and education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville only 1 in 10 3- and 4-year-olds was enrolled in formal early education when Head Start began, compared to more than 40 percent today. About a third of students entering the program had never been fully inoculated against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, or polio—common childhood illnesses at the time. In 1967 alone, Head Start programs identified and treated 900,000 dental defects and 2,200 active cases of tuberculosis, Ms. Gibbs found.

Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, argued that attempting to improve such a broad range of factors for young children has led administrators to ignore programs’ often lackluster educational effects. “You’ve had these across-the-board evaluations of Title I and Head Start that have said you’re not really improving equity, not really improving the outcomes for disadvantaged kids,” he said.

“I think the bad side of this legacy of the War on Poverty is we just re-legislate something that’s similar to what we had before, and ignore the fact that what we’ve been doing has not been very helpful.”

However, research by Mr. Deming suggested that those looking for educational benefits in Head Start may have been too shortsighted: While testing gains did fade out for Head Start participants, they saw better life outcomes after age 18—including higher rates of high school graduation and college attendance, and better health—than siblings who were not in the program.

Beyond School Policy

Similarly, a 2007 Georgetown University study found the federal school meal programs that were expanded during the War on Poverty improved poor students’ overall educational attainment by a full year, likely because they increased attendance and reduced malnutrition in early years. That’s a more significant effect than most instructional interventions could boast.

“People who are in education can’t just think about school policy,” said Gary Orfield, a distinguished research professor and a co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. “A family’s access to education and ability to take advantage of it are heavily shaped by job policies, economic policies, and other policies. These are things that were really understood by the reformers in the 1960s.”

Pedro Noguera, the executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University, said he thinks many War on Poverty initiatives lost steam as they became too focused on education without the other foundational supports.

Even before the federal No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, Mr. Noguera said, the expanded focus on academic standards in the 1980s and 1990s changed the public discussion of the purpose of education. “It was not a Republican shift; it happened under [Democratic President Bill] Clinton as well,” he said. “But education by itself is not going to lift anybody out of poverty. You just put more and more pressure on schools who are serving the poorest children and they have fewer resources.”

The demographics of poverty have also shifted in ways that break down old alliances to end poverty.

Though the War on Poverty went hand in hand with civil rights legislation, in 1960, 64 percent of the non-elderly poor were white. Today, 42 percent of non-elderly poor are white, and schools and neighborhoods are often doubly segregated, by both race and poverty.

Ironically, this increasing concentration of poverty may be an unintended consequence of the success of housing and school integration efforts of the 1960s and beyond, according to Richard J. Murnane, an education professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of the 2014 book Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education. The laws and lawsuits against race-based housing discrimination that picked up steam during and after the 1960s made it easier for middle-class minority families to leave segregated neighborhoods, but this often made those neighborhoods more economically isolated, Mr. Murnane said. Poverty-based residential segregation is now more common among black families than white ones, he noted, and leads to more deeply concentrated poverty at local schools.

Both Mr. Noguera and Mr. Orfield argue that the housing and school integration programs developed in many cases a tendency to use race as a proxy for poverty and “black” as a proxy for all races. This made sense in the 1960s—Latinos, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, and others all made up less than 5 percent of the nation’s population—but is out of touch with modern community dynamics, particularly in the West, where the economic disparity in a school may be solely between Asian-American and Latino students.

About This Series

War on Poverty: Progress & Persistent Inequity
This story is one of the first in a series of articles in Education Week during the next 18 months to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and its impact on the lives of children, especially those living in poverty. Read more.

“We need to think about what segregation means in our society now,” Mr. Orfield said. “It’s not just about isolation from whites; black and Latino middle-class families have largely abandoned the central cities as they raise their families.”

Mr. Noguera said he sees the future of anti-poverty programs in regional rather than national approaches that take into account more localized ethnic and linguistic isolation in high-poverty communities, but also broader regional differences in poverty.

For example, in large swaths of the South and Southwest, a majority of public schoolchildren live in poverty. “In those cases, there’s no one to integrate with; the poverty is just too great and too widespread,” Mr. Noguera said. “We need a much stronger and more creative state and federal role there.”

More Progress for Seniors

At the same time, as older Americans become generally whiter and wealthier than those under 18, there has been less common cause for poverty supports for younger people.

For example, Social Security and the Older Americans Act of 1965 set out extensive safeguards to prevent older people from falling into poverty. Today, the poverty rate of those 65 and older has dropped more dramatically than any other age group, from nearly 50 percent to less than 20 percent, even as more Americans live longer. According to census data, nearly 29 percent of children live in areas with 40 percent or higher concentrations of poverty, while only 8.5 percent of those over 65 live in concentrated poverty.

“Poverty got alleviated for elderly people because we framed it in way that couldn’t be challenged,” Mr. Orfield said, noting that Social Security and Medicare for older Americans are generally viewed as more like insurance than welfare programs. “Programs to end poverty for children are not well-framed as rights, not indexed to inflation, and do not have a well-organized constituency.”

And while educators and social service workers struggle to counteract the effects of poverty, the goal posts keep moving.

“Low-income children have higher IQ scores today than they did in 1970,” Mr. Murnane said. “It’s not that our schools are worse than they were—that’s the not the case at all—but the labor market has changed so fundamentally, it has affected the skills a student needs to make a middle-class living.”

In 1960, 80 percent of adults in poverty had not graduated high school, and policymakers focused both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and the Higher Education Act of 1965 on ensuring all Americans earned that basic diploma. Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 80 percent of adults in poverty have a high school diploma, including equivalency diplomas—it’s just not enough anymore.

“This seems to be something that’s driven by intentions without regard to outcomes,” said Neal P. McCluskey, the associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom in Washington. Because federal student loans and grants are not connected to students’ college readiness, “there are huge numbers of people who are being given money to go to college and they don’t finish, and have loans they can’t pay back.”

And, while a greater proportion of young Americans enroll in college today than in 1964, the gap in college enrollment between high school graduates from high and low-income families has inched up: 29.7 percentage points in 1975 versus 29.9 percentage points in 2010, according to census figures.

As policymakers consider the next steps in reducing child poverty—including the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, and other laws born of the War on Poverty—Mr. Murnane said the lessons from those 1960s efforts provide “existence proofs that the country can do better by low-income kids than we are doing.”

“You need consistent school supports and sensible accountability—both, not one or the other,” he said.

Coverage of educational equity and school reform is supported in part by a grant from the HOPE Foundation and the Panasonic Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as 50 Years Later, Verdicts Are Mixed on the Nation’s War on Poverty


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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