The best case that the war on poverty has failed

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, launched by Lyndon B. Johnson in his 1964 State of the Union address, and it has prompted a wide-ranging debate on whether that battle has succeeded or failed. Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio have called it a failure, citing the official Census poverty rate, which shows basically no improvement in the last half-century.

On its own merits, the measurement is misleading. As has been well-documented, the official poverty rate fails to take into account significant parts of the nation's safety net. In reality, as you can see in the interactive chart above, the safety net has reduced the poverty rate from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012. The chart is using a measure of poverty developed by economists at Columbia University and elsewhere that analyzes how many people fall below the poverty line once taxes and transfers (such as food stamps) are factored in.

So, to the degree that the War on Poverty was a war to ensure that more Americans have the resources to meet the most basic needs of their lives -- even if that required a massive increase in the size of the welfare state -- the effort has been a resounding success. Millions upon millions of Americans have lived a more decent life because of taxpayer support.

But to the degree that the War on Poverty should have led U.S. companies to pay their workers adequate wages and prompted sufficient enough demand to ensure full employment, the war has been a failure. If you return to the interactive chart above, and click on "poverty rate without the safety net," you'll see that 28.7 percent of the country would be in poverty today without government policies to help them -- actually higher than it was 50 years ago.

And so, in that sense, it's hard to say we've won the War on Poverty when nearly 1 in 3 Americans lacks, without the government's help, the sustenance necessary to meet the basic needs of  life.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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