Over at the Brookings site, Ron Haskins rehearses the standard conservative story about the “War on Poverty” (which I’ll abbreviate here as WoP).

This story frames the WoP as:

  1. a liberal initiative spearheaded by LBJ who pushed through “a major set of programs designed to serve the poor” that now cost “around $1 trillion” a year; and

  2. a massive failure, because it hasn’t done enough to change “the personal decisions of more young Americans” by pushing them to “get more education, work more, and stop having babies outside marriage.”

Pretty much all of the standard conservative story is wrong, although not necessarily for the reasons liberals commonly say it is.

Some key points in response to 1):

  • The WoP is best understood as a conservative initiative, one that united conservative Southern Democrats and Nixon Republicans around the expansion of targeted programs, instead of more universal programs and stronger labor standards that would have reined in inequality and facilitated cross-class alliances between middle- and working-class people. The big expansion of means-tested programs happened during the Nixon presidency not LBJ’s. While Congress was controlled by Democrats under both LBJ and Nixon, the chair of House Ways and Means was Wilbur Mills of Arkansas and the chair of Senate Finance was Russell Long of Louisiana.

  • For example, while the Food Stamp Program (now SNAP) was expanded from a pilot program to a permanent one in 1964, only about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population were receiving benefits the month after LBJ left office, and the decision to operate a food stamp program as well as the eligibility standards was still left to local areas. It was legislation adopted during the Nixon Administration (particularly in 1971 and 1973) that made food stamps a truly national program with uniform eligibility standards and availability nationwide. By October 1974, about 7 percent of Americans were receiving benefits.

  • Similarly, Supplemental Security Income was established in 1972 to replace state programs for the elderly and disabled (funded under the Social Security Act) with a federal program with uniform eligibility criteria throughout the nation. And the EITC was first established in the Tax Reduction Act of 1975, signed by President Ford. Both SSI and the EITC had their beginnings in Congressional debates in the early 1970s over President Nixon’s otherwise ill-fated Family Assistance Plan proposal.

  •  At the same time, when Sen. Walter Mondale’s legislation establishing near-universal and comprehensive child care assistance passed Congress in 1971, Nixon vetoed it, stopping real “welfare reform” dead in its tracks. Similarly, as Paul Starr has noted in The American Prospect, even LBJ’s idea of a war on poverty didn’t include “strengthening the hand of labor.”

  • It would have been helpful for Haskins to note that “around $1 trillion” a year is around 6 percent of GDP, and that about half of this amount, almost 3 percent of GDP, is spent on Medicaid and other public assistance medical care. (The specific numbers for 2012 include: means-tested income maintenance, including SNAP, TANF, and SSI (1.7% of GDP), public assistance medical care (2.8% of GDP) and education and training assistance (.4%)). As I noted in a post last week, Haskins’ figures here are quite selective in ideological terms, since they don’t include federal expenditures that subsidize employer-provided health insurance, cost more than Medicaid, and mostly go to people in the top 40 percent of the income distribution.

And some key points in response to 2):

  • As I’ve noted previously here, people living below the poverty line today are better educated than ever. Nearly one-third of middle-aged adults living in poverty today have a B.A. degree or some college, compared to only 14% in 1979, and I imagine a very small share in 1964. Similarly, the share with High School diplomas has increased from 40 percent to nearly 70.

  • Women have joined the labor force in droves over the last 50 years (and mostly before the mid-1990s).

  • About half of all parents living in poverty today are married and only about a third of parents in poverty have never been married.

  • As economist Hillary Hoynes and her colleagues have found, poverty trends over the last several decades for working-age people and children are mostly explained by the increase in wage inequality and stagnant wages. Increases in educational attainment and women’s employment helped rein poverty in.

All that said, Haskins is right about one thing: spending money on government means-tested programs is at best a partial solution. But the rest of the solution has little to do with lecturing “young Americans” (cue up David Bowie’s great 1975 single here [video]) about their personal decisions. Instead, we need to get serious about addressing the extent to which wealth and income are redistributed from middle- and working-class Americans to the very rich through political processes, and we need more near-universal programs and stronger labor standards. 

Revised: November 27, 2013