The War on Poverty Makes You Feel Good, But That Doesn't Mean it Works

During the State of the Union Address on January 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson outlined what would become known as the War on Poverty, proclaiming, "This administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join me in that effort.” Johnson undertook a noble mission in that address, one that inspired a generation of lifelong activists committed to eliminating poverty through direct assistance programs for the poor. However, 50 years later, there is little evidence to show that this approach has lowered poverty rates at all.

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

(Source: World Bank)

However, in a 2011 study, Bruce Meyer and James Sullivan show that many measures of income used to arrive at this conclusion miscalculate overall economic wellbeing by underestimating increases in households’ ability to consume goods and services. The finding implies that while salaries of the poor and middle class remains constant, the value of goods one can buy with that salary is increasing. The study concludes that increased material wellbeing among lower income groups is largely the result of sustained GDP growth, with programs such as SNAP and housing assistance playing a minimal role.