Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson used his first State of the Union address to urge “all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.” The War on Poverty, as the set of social programs enacted in 1964-1965 came to be called, was arguably the most ambitious domestic policy initiative since the Great Depression. But for decades, politicians and social scientists have argued about whether Johnson’s antipoverty programs have lifted people out of destitution, trapped them in cycles of dependency, or both.
Critics note that the official poverty rate, as calculated by the Census Bureau, has fallen only modestly, from 19% in 1964 to 15% in 2012 (the most recent year available). But other analysts, citing shortcomings in the official poverty measure, focus on a supplemental measure (also produced by the Census Bureau) to argue that more progress has been made. A team of researchers from Columbia University, for example, calculated an “anchored” supplemental measure — essentially the 2012 measure carried back through time and adjusted for historical inflation — and found that it fell from about 26% in 1967 to 16% in 2012.
What’s inarguable, though, is that the demographics of America’s poor have shifted over the decades. Here’s a look at what has, and hasn’t, changed, based on the official measure. (Note: The reference years vary depending on data availability.)