Ronald Reagan gave America so many pretty sayings, but when it comes to social equality, he’ll go down in history for his lyrical lie, “The federal government declared a war on poverty, and poverty won.” (He said it many times, many ways; that exact quote is from his 1988 State of the Union address.)
Of course, Reagan was wrong. Poverty declined sharply after the war on poverty commenced. According to the Institute for Research on Poverty, in 1959 the individual poverty rate was 22 percent. It hovered there until about 1964, when it began to drop; by 1973, it was 11 percent. Then it began to climb again, to 15 percent in 1983. Thanks to the economic boom at the end of Reagan’s tenure, it dropped by about a point, and then jumped back to 15 percent by the time President Clinton took office. Under Clinton, it fell to 11 percent. Under George W. Bush, it climbed back over 14 percent, and it has continued to inch upward under Barack Obama.
I pushed myself to see whether maybe poverty rates declined faster before the war on poverty than they did afterward. It’s tough to do; the Census Bureau didn’t keep detailed data on poverty until 1959, which is why you’ll see that year used so often. But there were agencies and researchers studying poverty. In a majestic Dwight MacDonald New Yorker review of Michael Harrington’s “The Other America,” I found estimates for the years from the Depression through 1960. They’re fascinating. It’s clear the New Deal did little to reduce poverty; the war plus the postwar reconstruction was the real anti-poverty program: The number of Americans making under $4,000 (the poverty estimate in Harrington’s book) dropped by a quarter from 1947 to 1953, and by another sixth by 1960. But as MacDonald (and Harrington) noted, despite America’s affluence, the decline in poverty rates had slowed. A recession during the Kennedy administration pushed the rate up a little bit, but then, under Johnson, it began to plummet.
It’s hard to tease out how much of the drop in poverty was due to government spending and how much was the strong (for a while) 1960s economy. Still, the postwar boom only cut the rate by a third, so it seems safe to conclude we cut it in half with the help of the War on Poverty. We should remember that the Great Society gave the most help to elderly Americans, whose poverty rates dropped even more sharply. For the non-elderly, government assistance helped some, but not nearly as much. That’s different from saying government programs hurt the poor. Mostly, for the non-elderly poor, the poverty rate closely tracks the median income. Meaning, “It’s the economy, stupid,” not, “It’s the stupid poverty programs.”
Not coincidentally, the Reagan years saw a boom in dishonest research “proving” that welfare itself caused the rise in single-female-headed families (who are in fact more likely to be poor). Charles Murray’s “Losing Ground” purported to put meat on the bones of Reagan’s “Poverty won” argument, marshaling an arsenal of statistics to show that poverty programs, especially what was known as “Aid to Families With Dependent Children,” encouraged promiscuity, rewarded the lazy and destroyed the family — especially the black family. Anti-poverty scholars fought back with their own statistics: The number of white female-headed households not on welfare exploded in the same years, making it unlikely welfare was causing the trend; the share of children born to low-income black single mothers rose sharply largely because married black mothers were having many fewer children, not because single women were having more. But thanks to Reagan’s sunny claims from his bully presidential pulpit, and the right-wing philanthropy enlisted to spread Murray’s lies, the other side prevailed. You might say those scholars fought a war on lies, and lies won.