The War on Poverty Was an Enormous Success

Ezra Klein mentioned this briefly yesterday in the course of a larger critique of a Robert Samuelson column, but it should be said as clearly and loudly as possible that conservative assertions that “the ‘war on poverty’ failed” are dead wrong. Consider the small matter of the poverty rate:


You can see two clear trends here. One is that macroeconomic performance makes a big difference. From 1982 on to the end of the Reagan administration, the poverty rate declined steadily in lockstep with economic growth until along came a new recession. The other is that policy makes a big difference. During the years of the post-war liberal consensus, poverty went down a lot. And during the Reagan years, poverty never plumbed the depths seen in the seventies or in the Clinton years. And the cause of this relatively high poverty rate even during the Reagan growth years is precisely that Reagan believed the war on poverty had been a failure and did nothing to promote anti-poverty policies.

Fortunately, it seems that these days the public is willing to support more aggressive anti-poverty measures.