Obama, LBJ, and the War on Poverty

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Paul Tough’s latest New York Times Magazinefeature performs an admirable service illustrating contradictions between the Obama administration’s anti-poverty efforts and Obama’s own complex views on the topic, shaped by his early career as a community organizer in Chicago’s hard-luck Roseland neighborhood. But I have to quibble with one mildly disingenuous sleight of hand the piece performs. In discussing the history of the War on Poverty, Tough narrates:

In 1966, at the height of the War on Poverty, the poverty rate was just under 15 percent of the population; in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, it was 15.1 percent. And the child-poverty rate is 22 percent — substantially higher today than it was then. And yet as a political issue, especially during this presidential campaign season, poverty has receded almost to silence.

It's strange that Tough chooses 1966 as his point of comparison. As Wonkblog recently pointed out, in the five years before 1964—the year Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty—the poverty rate was near or above 20 percent. The rate dropped dramatically in the next 10 years, and hasn’t gone over 15 percent since. Whether or not you accept government transfer payments on moral grounds, there is little denying the statistical evidence that programs resulting from the War on Poverty put a strong ceiling on poverty rates in America.

Tough’s Roseland is a poignant symbol for how little Obama, or any politician, can realistically achieve in office. But his reading of history downplays the real impact that Federal policies have had overall. Comparing 1966 to 2010, as Tough does, is a bit like saying “because my health hasn't continued to improve each day after fully recovering from a successful surgery, the surgery must not have worked.”