Amid the many assessments of the War on Poverty in recent days, marking the 50 years since its launch, too few have included references to Michael Harrington. Yet his 1962 book, The Other America, laid the foundation for the effort. He chronicled the plight of the country’s poor, gathering stories and presenting numbers, concluding that one-quarter of Americans lived in poverty. His work made a strong impression on President John Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson then drove the cause to legislation.
In retrospect, President Johnson erred in talking about a “war.” Addressing poverty hardly compares to the landscape of a battlefield, where victory is more precisely defined and achieved. The country is not going to eradicate poverty. What it can do is reduce significantly its presence, and that is what has been accomplished, as Cass Sunstein of Bloomberg View helps to explain on today’s Commentary page.
Consider the other America that Michael Harrington found. More than one-third of elderly Americans lived poverty. Today, the share is less than 10 percent, due, in large part, to Medicare and a stronger Social Security program. Infant mortality has dropped. So have childhood malnutrition and related diseases. Harrington found many parts of Appalachia without electricity or indoor plumbing. That no longer is the case.
The initiatives set in motion by Lyndon Johnson included a pilot program that became food stamps, now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, keeping 4 million Americans out of poverty. Medicaid got its start, and then expanded to cover more children, and most recently, more adults. Head Start began, along with aid to public schools, college grants and loans, all contributing to higher rates of graduation.
The War on Poverty has had its share of failures, starting, perhaps, with high-rise public housing, much now torn down. The numbers reveal how much remains to be done, for example, four in 10 black children living in poverty, three in 10 Latino children. About 30 percent of single mothers live in poverty. Success in public school follows closely income, the Ohio schools with the poorest students with just one-third of third graders reading at a proficient level.
What deserves attention, too, is that policy-makers have added effectively to the array of programs, most notably, the Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable credit for the working poor that keeps 6 million people out of poverty. If today’s safety net reduces poverty by roughly half, the challenge now is taking the percentage lower, the public investment going to such things as early education and support (including public transportation and child care) that invite people to seize opportunities. The war may never be won, but battles can become victories.