Chart Book: The War on Poverty at 50, Overview

By Arloc Sherman, Sharon Parrott, and Danilo Trisi

Updated January 7, 2014

As we mark the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, we should recognize that poverty has fallen significantly over the last half-century when measured using a comprehensive poverty measure, and other troubling poverty-related conditions have declined.

Today’s safety net — which includes important programs and improvements both from the Johnson era and thereafter — cuts poverty nearly in half.  It kept 41 million people, including 9 million children, out of poverty in 2012, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, a more comprehensive measure than the “official” measure.  And, poverty-reducing programs such as nutrition assistance and tax credits for working families have been found to yield lasting gains in children’s later health and education.

Nevertheless, poverty and hardship remain high, with millions of Americans having trouble putting food on the table and a roof over their heads.  Nearly 50 million Americans were poor in 2012, including 13 million children, and 16 million people lived below half of the poverty line. 

A much stronger safety net along with factors such as rising education levels, higher employment among women, and smaller families helped push poverty down.  At the same time, growing income inequality, rising numbers of single-parent families, and worsening labor market prospects for less-skilled workers have pushed in the other direction.

All told, the nation has made substantial progress against poverty and poverty-related conditions over the last half-century.  Yet poverty, inequality, and racial disparities remain high.  Today’s challenge is to take what we have learned and strengthen efforts to reduce poverty and hardship and to promote broad economic opportunity.

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