The Legacy of the War on Poverty and Implications for the Future

Awarded Scholars:
Stub for 2016,
Martha Bailey, University of Michigan
Project Date:
Mar 2012
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Non-Program Activities

When President Johnson declared an unconditional “War on Poverty” in his inaugural State of the Union Address in January of 1964, roughly 35 million Americans, or 18 percent of the population, fell below the poverty line. Within the first couple of years of the Johnson administration, the President pushed through landmark legislation and secured federal funds targeting not only poverty alleviation but also education, housing, health, employment, civic participation, and the improvement of economic opportunity. Central to this war on poverty was a civil rights agenda that targeted the vexing questions about citizenship raised by the continuing disenfranchisement of black Americans. Federal funding became conditional on local governments, hospitals, school districts, universities, and other key institutions taking concrete steps to achieve racial integration.

Did the War on Poverty succeed? Success is hard to claim based upon long-term trends in poverty. In 2010, 46 million, or 15.2 percent, lived in poverty and so did one in five American children – a poverty rate almost as high as when the War on Poverty was declared. The War on Poverty is often remembered for its controversies and its inability to end poverty. Even some initially sympathetic to the administration’s efforts eventually concluded that it had promised too much, prescribed untested remedies, and was woefully underfunded. Yet growing empirical evidence on the War on Poverty’s successes and failures is far more nuanced.

University of Michigan economists, Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger argue that because the War on Poverty was fought on so many different fronts and comprised so many diverse programs and policies, any generalization ignores important lessons. These lessons remain relevant because many of the War on Poverty’s programs – from civil and voting rights, to Medicaid and Medicare, federal education assistance, fair housing, and job training, among others — and their offshoots have shaped the evolution of the U.S. social safety net.

Bailey and Danziger seek to re-evaluate the widespread view that social policies are ineffective in preventing or reducing poverty. They have assembled a multi-disciplinary team of nationally-recognized scholars to write original papers that examine the empirical evidence accumulated over almost 50 years and assess the long-term impacts of some of the main policies and programs of the War on Poverty. The papers will be part of a 50th anniversary volume, to be edited by Bailey and Danziger.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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