Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Opinion: Did President Johnson's War on Poverty Succeed?

The 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty is upon us, and it has occasioned a retrospective on what is arguably one of the most complex periods in our nation's history.

Opinion: Did President Johnson's War on Poverty Succeed?

The 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty is upon us, and it has occasioned a retrospective on what is arguably one of the most complex periods in our nation’s history.

This period is seminal as far as I am concerned. The role and scope of government was fundamentally altered in ways unimaginable today. So I am pleased this national reflection is going forward, even though I know the Great Society‘s real impact will always be measured by the question: How much poverty did it reduce?

One argument says that the Great Society programs may have significantly reduced elderly poverty, but general poverty, measured by our standard metric, has not declined all that much. An adjunct to that argument says that if we count non-cash government programs, many of them implemented during or in the wake of the War on Poverty, the true impact of the period emerges and there is a case to be made that poverty would have been much worse over the past fifty years without government intervention.

Another argument says that searching for impacts of the War on Poverty misses the point. Globalization and technological shifts have changed the game for the poor, leaving little opportunity for social and economic mobility. Growing inequality results from these large trends. But limiting the damage to the American social contract is exacerbated by the lack of consensus that inequality is indeed corrosive.

Of course there is the much-repeated argument that the War on Poverty failed to affect statistical poverty. Indeed, the War on Poverty put in place disincentives to individual drive and family formation that resulted in many of the social challenges we now face as a nation.

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