It’s Time to Stop Hiding Behind Statistics and Reform Our Welfare System

Last week, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives sounded the alarm bells on poverty and opportunity in America. Their message? Since President Lyndon Johnson declared “war” on poverty in 1964, we’ve spent trillions of dollars trying to help the poor — and have little to show for it. One of the most startling statistics in the House report:

“…even though the federal government has spent trillions of taxpayer dollars on these programs over the past five decades, the official poverty rate in 2014 (14.8%) was no better than it was in 1966 (14.7%), when many of these programs started.”

To their credit, House Republicans didn’t just point out the shortcomings of the government’s antipoverty efforts. They also rolled out a plan outlining proposals to expand economic opportunity and make existing programs work better.

This isn’t the first time conservatives have flagged problems with our current approach to fighting poverty or made recommendations for reform. In 2014, for example, the House Budget Committee released a similar report outlining the shortcomings of our current antipoverty programs and followed up with a recommended set of changes.

Given the embarrassing 0.1 percent increase in the poverty rate after spending trillions of tax dollars, and the myriad of fresh ideas on offer over the years, you’d think poverty might be a popular area for reform. But the last meaningful changes happened 20 years ago.

One reason why? We can’t seem to agree on how successful our welfare programs have been — and thus on how important (or not) it is that we reform them.

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Source: House Budget Committee

Some say the official measure of federal poverty, which the House report uses, understates the success of our antipoverty programs because it only includes federal benefits that are provided in the form of cash assistance. So a person who receives food stamps every month, copayment-free health insurance via Medicaid and a housing voucher could still be classified as having almost no income (and thus being among the most desperately poor in our society) because the poverty measure looks only at how much work income or cash aid they get.

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Robert Greenstein, a skeptic of the official poverty rate at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explains: “Comparing today’s official poverty rate to that of the late 1960s is essentially meaningless because the official rate fails to count virtually any major antipoverty program created or expanded since the late 1960s…”

Politico reporter Danny Vinik reiterated the point last week. “The official poverty measure thus masks much of the progress achieved by these antipoverty programs,” he wrote.

Some prefer using an alternative measure that includes non-cash federal assistance. It’s this method that makes our antipoverty efforts look much more successful, showing a drop in the poverty rate of almost 40 percent — from 26 percent to 16 percent — since the 1960s.

Some conservatives, including Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, acknowledge that thanks to our welfare system, “the prevalence of material hardship has declined.” Winship cites a 2012 study conducted by economists Bruce Meyer and James Sullivan, noting that today, “just 8 percent of Americans live at the low standard of living endured by a third of Americans in 1963.”

So U.S. antipoverty programs have helped people who have fallen on hard times live more comfortably. Fair enough. But that’s a long way from disproving the House Republicans’ contention that we’re losing the war on poverty, or providing a good reason to put off real welfare reform.

Even if you prefer the more holistic poverty rate measurement, you can’t get around the fact that our welfare programs have done embarrassingly little to address the ability of someone in poverty to escape it and earn a decent living on their own.

Our welfare programs have done embarrassingly little to address the ability of someone in poverty to escape it and earn a decent living on their own
Indeed, economic mobility in the United States has stagnated over the past few decades. We as a society still embrace the idea that people, with hard work and perseverance, can and should move up the income ladder and surpass the living standards of their parents. But reality looks quite different: the fact is that today, people who are born into a very poor family tend to get stuck in poverty. A 2012 study from The Pew Charitable Trusts found that “more than 40 percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile of the family income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent remain below the middle.”

And guess what? Our antipoverty programs haven’t helped the problem. As Winship points out, the data show that these numbers haven’t improved in at least 30 years — a point emphasized by the House Republican reform plan, too.

It’s not just the Right that acknowledges that providing increased government support — even if it technically lowers the poverty rate — is an insufficient answer to poverty. As Vinik writes, “The best result, of course, would be if antipoverty programs weren’t mainly alleviating poverty through direct aid but if they were helping people become more self-sufficient, crossing the poverty line without the help of the federal government.”

When LBJ declared war on poverty he boasted, “our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” Instead, we’ve had, as Winship puts it, “a limited and costly victory.” A society with plentiful opportunity, where true economic hardship is rare not because we’re good at throwing money at people but because we successfully empower them to rise up the income ladder and be self-sufficient — that’s what a real victory over poverty would look like.

It’s time for leaders on both sides of the aisle to drop disputes on definitional differences and admit the following: first, that our antipoverty efforts have “won” in the sense that they’ve improved living standards for our society’s poorest. But second, that we’ve utterly failed to enable and empower individuals and families to transition over time from reliance on government aid to self-sufficiency — and that if we truly care about helping the poor, we’ll work to address the mobility crisis as soon as we possibly can.

In the next few months, we must take full advantage of the unique opportunity presented by discussions surrounding the House agenda and the inevitable public debate about poverty and upward mobility by the presidential candidates. We owe it to our poor and vulnerable neighbors to honestly address the lack of mobility in our society today — and to act accordingly. If you take LBJ at his word, that’s how we should fight the war on poverty.