The War on Poverty at 50

NRO has an online symposium on “The War on Poverty at 50“, which features brief blurbs from various scholars. Here’s Charles Murray:

The pair of statistics about the War on Poverty that should get the most publicity are these: In 1949, 41 percent of Americans were below the poverty line (scholars have retrospectively applied the official definition of “poverty” to the 1950 census); when LBJ announced the War on Poverty in 1964, that proportion had dropped to 19 percent. Contemplate that pair of numbers for a moment. In just the 15 years between 1949 and 1964, the American poverty rate had dropped by 22 percentage points. What had the government done to help? By the definition of the 1960s and thereafter, nothing. The federal government sponsored no education programs for the disadvantaged. No training programs. No jobs programs. No community action. No affirmative action. No Head Start. No welfare whatsoever for men, and only a stingy cash payment for unmarried mothers, hedged with restrictions. The federal government was missing in action in the real war against poverty — and yet somehow America cut poverty by more than half.

Poverty continued to drop during LBJ’s years, which featured a red-hot economy (unemployment rates averaged 4.2 percent from 1964 to 1969). But when the economy slowed, the poverty rate flattened, hitting its low point of 11 percent in 1973. That doesn’t mean nothing has changed since then. In recent decades, the official poverty statistic has become less and less interpretable. But whatever measure is used, we have seen nothing remotely like the progress against poverty that the American economy and American civil society — not government programs — achieved from the end of World War II to 1964.

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