Fifty years after President Johnson declared war on poverty, it’s time to reimagine anti-poverty work for the next fifty years. In doing so, one thing seems central: the need to build a broad-based progressive movement for economic justice and security. This movement needs to encompass not just the 15 percent living below ouroutmoded poverty line, but all people who struggle to make ends meet and aren’t getting the dignity, security, and compensation they deserve.
Much of our current approach to poverty dates back to the early 1960s. At that time, America was commonly viewed as an affluent society in which prosperity was widely shared. But there was growing recognition that we had a pesky poverty problem. The general sentiment back then is captured in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which declared that the benefits of economic prosperity were “widely shared throughout the nation” but “poverty continues to be the lot of a substantial number of our people.” There was also a view that people living in poverty were a distinct minority, one very different from those in the middle and working classes. To cite perhaps the most influential example, Michael Harrington’s 1962 book on poverty, elites often thought of low-income people as “a different kind of people” living in an “other America.”
Given this, it seemed technically possible in the 1960s to eliminate poverty through a targeted approach that mostly relied on narrowly means-tested benefits and services along with education and training. And this approach seemed politically possible, despite its costs and narrow targeting, because it was assumed that the middle class would become increasingly prosperous and thus have little objection to expanding targeted programs until poverty was eliminated.
It could have worked. As economist Elise Gould has highlighted, if the gains from economic growth had continued to be shared with middle- and low-income people in the same way as they were in the initial decades following World War II, the official poverty rate would have fallen to somewhere near zero in the 1980s.