Poverty and InequalitySexual and Reproductive HealthFamily, Maternal & Child HealthMethodology

The War on Poverty: Measurement, Trends, and Policy

TitleThe War on Poverty: Measurement, Trends, and Policy
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsHaveman, R, Blank, R, Moffitt, R, Smeeding, T, Wallace, G
JournalJ Policy Anal Manage
Date PublishedSummer
ISBN Number0276-8739 (Print)0276-8739 (Linking)
Accession Number27064413

We present a 50-year historical perspective of the nation's antipoverty efforts, describing the evolution of policy during four key periods since 1965. Over this half-century, the initial heavy reliance on cash income support to poor families has eroded; increases in public support came largely in the form of in-kind (e.g., Food Stamps) and tax-related (e.g., the Earned Income Tax Credit) benefits. Work support and the supplementation of earnings substituted for direct support. These shifts eroded the safety net for the most disadvantaged in American society. Three poverty-related analytical developments are also described. The rise of the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM)-taking account of noncash and tax-related benefits-has corrected some of the serious weaknesses of the official poverty measure (OPM). The SPM measure indicates that the poverty rate has declined over time, rather than being essentially flat as the OPM implies. We also present snapshots of the composition of the poor population in the United States using both the OPM and the SPM, showing progress in reducing poverty overall and among specific socioeconomic subgroups since the beginning of the War on Poverty. Finally, we document the expenditure levels of numerous antipoverty programs that have accompanied the several phases of poverty policy and describe the effect of these efforts on the level of poverty. Although the effectiveness of government antipoverty transfers is debated, our findings indicate that the growth of antipoverty policies has reduced the overall level of poverty, with substantial reductions among the elderly, disabled, and blacks. However, the poverty rates for children, especially those living in single-parent families, and families headed by a low-skill, low-education person, have increased. Rates of deep poverty (families living with less than one-half of the poverty line) for the nonelderly population have not decreased, reflecting both the increasing labor market difficulties faced by the low-skill population and the tilt of means-tested benefits away from the poorest of the poor. © 2015 by the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management.