When President Lyndon Johnson declared his war on poverty on Jan. 8, 1964, almost exactly 50 years ago, 19 percent of Americans were poor.
“The richest nation on earth can afford to win it,” he reasoned, as he proposed a clutch of initiatives from expanding food stamps to revamping unemployment insurance. “We cannot afford to lose it.”
A half-century later, our priorities have changed.
In November, food benefits were cut for approximately 48 million Americans by an average of 7 percent, costing the typical recipient about $9 a month, as the emergency expansion of the food stamp program enacted in the depths of the great recession was allowed to expire.
Next month, 1.3 million jobless workers are scheduled to stop receiving an unemployment check, after Congress’s refusal to prolong the extension of emergency jobless benefits to up to 73 weeks, from 26. Perhaps as many as five million people will lose their benefit over the next year.
But while politicians’ attention has wandered, poverty remains uncomfortably close to where it was five decades ago.
The official poverty rate today is 15 percent. But by a newly deployed, more comprehensive Census Bureau definition, which provides a more realistic tab on people’s needs and takes into account the effect of government benefits, 16 percent of Americans are poor.
This is just 3 percentage points less than in 1967, the earliest year for which the data is available. It amounts to 50 million people.
[UPDATE: January 8, 2014]: Check out this New York Times follow-up article, 50 Years Later, War on Poverty Is a Mixed Bag and Room for Debate: Does the U.S. Need Another War on Poverty?.