Fifty years in circles

This week in 1964 President Lyndon Johnson set the nation on a course to fight the perils of being poor. The so-called “war on poverty” began at a time when approximately 20 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line.

Fifty years later, the battle is hardly won. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 (the most recent year for which data is available) 15.1 percent of all persons in the United States lived in poverty. The poverty rate in 2010 was the highest since 1993. Between 1993 and 2000, the poverty rate fell each year, reaching 11.3 percent in 2000.

As we look back across five decades of increased awareness about poverty, some interesting trends emerge. In the late 1950s, the poverty rate for all Americans was 22.4 percent, which amounted to about 39.5 million individuals. When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1960, he quietly began working toward some of the goals Johnson would later ambitiously advocate.

Poverty declined steadily throughout the 1960s, reaching a low of 11.1 percent, or 22.9 million individuals, in 1973. Over the next decade, the rate fluctuated between 11.1 and 12.6 percent, but it began to rise steadily again in 1980. By 1983, the number of poor individuals had risen by almost 3 percent — to 35.3 million individuals, or 15.2 percent.

The era synonymous with Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko “greed is good” mentality and trickle-down economics bore hardest on those nearest the bottom. For the next decade, the poverty rate remained above 12.8 percent, increasing to 15.1 percent, or 39.3 million individuals, by 1993. The rate declined for the remainder of the 1990s, to 11.3 percent by 2000. From 2000 to 2004 it rose each year to 12.7 in 2004.

Of course poverty is not distributed equally across the races, genders or age. Since the late 1960s, the poverty rate for people over 65 has fallen dramatically. The poverty rate for children has historically been somewhat higher than the overall poverty rate. The poverty rate for people in households headed by single women is significantly higher than the overall poverty rate.

As researchers at the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center observe: “The poverty rate for all persons masks considerable variation between racial/ethnic subgroups. Poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics greatly exceed the national average. In 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1 percent of Asians.”

Among those in poverty are the “poorest of the poor,” what economists term the “extreme poor.” H. Luke Shaefer at the University of Michigan and Kathryn Edin of Harvard University studied this group in the wake of the Great Recession. These researchers co-authored “Extreme Poverty in the United States, 1996 to 2011.” In this study, they state: “We estimate that, as of the beginning of 2011, about 1.46 million U.S. households with about 2.8 million children were surviving on $2 or less in income per person per day in a given month. This constitutes almost 20 percent of all non-elderly households with children living in poverty.”

Linking this trend to more strident welfare policies, they conclude: “The prevalence of extreme poverty rose sharply between 1996 and 2011. This growth has been concentrated among those groups that were most affected by the 1996 welfare reform.”

As such, we doubt that either Johnson or Kennedy would be very impressed with the “progress” of the last half century. Like it or not, we become our brothers’ keepers. We can either fulfill this certain obligation with wisdom and planning or we can allow yet one more generation to succumb to the terrible cycle.