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50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty

It’s a War on Poverty, Not a War Against the Poor

Contact: Michelle Nicolet

January 8, 2014, marks the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty. Under its principal architects, President Johnson and Peace Corps chief Sargent Shriver, the poverty rate dropped from 16 to 11 percent. 

Sarge understood the scope of this ambitious undertaking. He explained that “if the War on Poverty means anything, it is a statement that we must look, not just to the poor—but to the whole cloth too—and even to the loom. The whole fabric of our society must be rewoven, and the patterns we must weave are patterns of justice, opportunity, dignity, and mutual respect.” 

Today’s struggles with poverty are even more complex than in 1964. We have a gridlocked Congress, the Great Recession has deepened poverty for some, and some who formerly populated the ranks of the middle class now find themselves in poverty. Young adults and persons of color are also more affected by poverty than ever before. 

Here is what we know:

46.5 million Americans live in poverty. 16 million of those living in poverty are children.

Young adults continue to struggle. The youngest working age group, ages 15-24, is the only age group whose income has not increased over the past 30 years. In addition, in 2012, young adults aged 25-34 living with their parents had a 43 percent poverty rate if their poverty status is determined using only their own income and not their parents’ income.

The post-recession recovery is lagging for many. Median income and the poverty level were not statistically different in 2012 than they were in 2011. Fifteen percent of the American people lived in poverty, 20 percent more than before the recession.

The poverty rate understates the true level of destitution. Fifteen percent of the overall population lived in poverty, with the poverty rate for children at 22 percent. But 40 percent of those who lived in poverty—20 million people, including seven million children—lived in extreme poverty, meaning their income was less than half of the federal poverty level. A family of three in extreme poverty has an annual income below $9,765.

Income inequality has grown enormously over time. It is a staggering truth that 95 percent of the income gains since 2009 have gone to the top one percent. At the same time, U.S. median household income, adjusted for inflation, has fallen 4.4 percent since the great recession “ended” four years ago. Rising income inequality also deepens the racial wealth gap, which we have been fighting for generations to undo. In 2009, the median wealth of white families was $113,149, compared with $6,325 for Latino families and $5,677 for black families. Between 2007 and 2010 Hispanic families lost 44 percent of their wealth, black families lost 31 percent, and white families lost only 11 percent.

On this commemoration, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law reflects and implores action:

“At this 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty, there are signs that if America’s leaders take on poverty by name, the country itself may be ready to take large scale action against poverty. We should make this a time that will have its own anniversary 50 years from now as a watershed in the successful fight against poverty.”  —John Bouman, President

“During the past four years, since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, Congress has done virtually nothing to advance justice or opportunity for the 46 million people—15 percent of all Americans—who are living in poverty in the United States. Congress has an obligation to do more.”  ­
—Dan Lesser, Director Economic Justice

“The war on poverty has turned into a war on the poor.”  —Todd Belcore, Community Justice Attorney

Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law

The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law provides national leadership in advancing laws and policies that secure justice to improve the lives and opportunities of people living in poverty. We specialize in practical solutions. Through our advocacy, communication, and training programs, we advocate for and serve clients directly, while also building the capacity of the nation's legal aid providers to advance justice and opportunity for their clients.

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