In a recent issue of the Moab Sun News, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox asks “Who is right?” on whether or not President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty worked (“Report says county at risk for ‘intergenerational poverty,’” June 9-15, 2016 Moab Sun News).
Says Cox, “I think Republicans need to use their hearts a little more and Democrats need to use their heads.” But a 2014 Columbia University study that uses a more accurate way of measuring poverty rates offers convincing evidence that the Johnson-era programs did work.
Anti-government proponents usually cite measurements showing that the poverty rate has fallen from 19 percent to only 15 percent in two generations. But those figures are derived from the government’s original official poverty measure, developed during the Johnson years and unchanged until recently. That measure is considered by many policy analysts to be woefully outdated, ignoring the impact of taxes and tax credits – such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) – which have become increasingly important to poor families. It also failed to account for government transfer programs, such as food stamps and free school lunches, which expand the spending power of the poor.
The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) – a more accurate and up-to-date metric first used by the U.S. Census in 2009 – corrected these weaknesses and took a more comprehensive view of what types of spending are essential for a decent life. Rather than basing everything on food, as the original measure did, it included clothing, shelter, utilities, medical expenses and child care. Using the SPM, the Columbia researchers found that the earlier measure had masked the progress made by the War on Poverty, concluding that the poverty rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012 – an almost 40 percent decline. Further, the factors behind that drop were the kind of anti-poverty programs that L.B.J. championed: food stamps and housing subsidies, Social Security and Medicare and generous income subsidies, in the form of tax credits, for low earners.
The study also found that elderly poverty and child poverty decreased substantially, that incomes rose at the bottom for both blacks and whites, and that existing safety net programs play an important role in preventing exactly the kind of intergenerational poverty that Mr. Cox was here in Moab to discuss.
Using the new measure, the researchers also went back to 1967 and calculated what the poverty rate would have looked like if the War on Poverty had never taken place — if government transfers, such as food stamps, and tax credits for the poor, such as the EITC, weren’t taken into account. The results are relevant to our situation here in Moab. Without the impact of government interventions, the child poverty rate is about 30 percent. After taking account of taxes and transfers, the figure comes down to 19 percent – again, a 40-percent decline.
Which is why most Americans, according to a recent poll, want more programs to combat poverty, such as expanded tax credits, child care programs and universal pre-kindergarten, and why an overwhelming majority of us feel that the government is responsible for taking care of the poor.
So despite our lieutenant governor’s statement that “the state is really bad at many things,” it is very good at poverty reduction. And given the troubling results of the recent findings regarding our own community, it needs to do even more.