How Should ‘The War on Poverty’ Be Judged?

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Poverty

In a post highlighting some findings from a new Columbia paper on poverty trends over the last five decades, Brad Plumer writes that, ”The ‘war on poverty’ has been less successful in helping people break free from the need for safety-net programs in the first place. That is, if you don’t factor in all these programs, then the [share] of Americans with incomes below the poverty line has actually grown, from 26 percent in 1967 to 29 percent in 2012.”

This is a somewhat puzzling characterization because it implies that one of the goals of the “war on poverty” was to help, say, the elderly “break free” from Social Security and Medicare, college students to break free from student financial aid, or poorly compensated workers to break free from the Earned Income Tax Credit. It would have been more accurate for Plumer to explain that the (quite intentional) weakening of labor market institutions like collective bargaining and the minimum wage over the last several decades has increased the likelihood that workers end up trapped in poorly-compensated jobs.

Programs that socialize a portion of employer’s labor costs, like the EITC, have helped many poorly-compensated workers with children break free from the poverty their inadequate wages would otherwise consign them to, but these programs would be much more effective if combined with improved labor standards.

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