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The War on Poverty has Succeeded

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 5/25/2015 Category: Politics
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 1,969 times Debate No: 75682
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (11)
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The War on Poverty was declared by President Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 State of the Union address. Johnson's War on Poverty was an ambitious, bipartisan initiative to dramatically reduce poverty in the United States and to ameliorate the most deleterious material deprivations caused by poverty. With the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty last year, many conservatives denied the effectiveness of Johnson's achievements and recommended their dismantling. [1] So, I wish register a full-throated, proudly liberal defense of Johnson's programs. I believe that the facts will show that not only has the War on Poverty been effective in accomplishing its goals--it has in fact constituted one of the most successful set of policy initiatives ever undertaken by the United States.


War on Poverty: The legislative agenda laid out in the 1964 State of the Union and in the eleven goals contained in chapter 2 of the 1964 Economic Report of the President, titled 'Strategy against Poverty' [2] A list of the major legislation comprising the War on Poverty can be found at Table 1.1 here. [3] The War on Poverty also includes modifications made to the programs established by these laws by later administrations.

I will not define what constitutes "success," as I generally think that gets into the substance of the debate - what does it mean to say that the War on Poverty has succeeded?

Round 1 should be for acceptance, rules and definitions, no arguments.
Round 2, principal arguments
Round 3, rebuttals of R2 arguments and further arguments
Round 4, rebuttals of R3 arguments and conclusions, no new arguments

Comment if you want to accept the debate.

[1] For example,


I accept and lool forward to a great debate.
Debate Round No. 1


Thank you, Valladarex, for accepting this debate. I look forward to your thoughts on the topic.

In his first state of the union address in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed "This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. ... Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it." [1] Johnson's critics observe correctly that poverty still exists in America - how then can we say that the War on Poverty was a success?

Simple: while significant work remains to be done to ameliorate poverty in the United States, the War on Poverty programs and legislation enacted by the Johnson administration - including Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Supplemental Security Income, the Fair Housing Act, the Job Corps, SNAP & WIC (food stamps), TANF (welfare), housing subsidies, Pell Grants, and the Voting Rights Act - have significantly reduced poverty in America, particularly among the elderly and African Americans.

While entire books have been written on the impact of the War on Poverty, [2] I will focus in my argument on articulating and providing support for a few major outcomes.

1) The War on Poverty has reduced the number of people living in poverty. In the first years of the programs, when the War on Poverty was a White House priority and programs were fully funded, the poverty rate fell quickly by half, from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent in just six years. [3] But since then, critics of the War on Poverty note that the measured drop in the official poverty rate since 1967 has only been modest, from 19 percent to 15 percent. [4] But the official "poverty rate" is a poor measure, specifically because it omits most forms of government assistance. When the effects of War on Poverty programs are taken into consideration, poverty has declined from 25.8 percent in 1967 to 16.0 percent in 2012. [5]

click="document.location='/CASmnl42/photos/album/5111/35369/'" src="../../../photos/albums/1/6/5111/244158-5111-kbzgx-a.jpg" alt="Drop" />

[An aside - while I am following the posted directions for embedding photos, it seems that the formatting may not be working properly. Thus, I will also provide links to imgue for each chart. I apologize for any formatting ugliness that results.]

The poverty rate also does not take into account that market forces since 1980 have been working to put more people into poverty - wages have stagnated for the middle and lower classes, and the benefits of economic growth have largely gone to the top quintile of earners. In the absence of government benefits, poverty would have risen from 25 percent to 31 percent from 1967 to 2012, instead of declining as it has. [6] Overall, there are about 45 million people in the United States today who live above the poverty line that would be living under the poverty line were it not for War on Poverty programs. [5] In essence, the War on Poverty and its legacy programs are responsible, as of 2012, for reducing poverty by half of what it would be otherwise.

click="document.location='/CASmnl42/photos/album/5111/35368/'" src="../../../photos/albums/1/6/5111/244158-5111-srbvq-a.jpg" alt="W/out gov't" />

2) The War on Poverty significantly changed the nature of poverty in the United States. Critics of the War on Poverty often trot out these points, as if somehow they work in their favor, that the poor today are significantly materially better off than they were 50 years ago. 92% have microwaves! 80% have air conditioning! [7]

This is a vast improvement over the deprivations that defined poverty in Johnson's day. Due to programs like WIC, nutrition for pregnant women and children have resulted in drastic reductions in infant mortality and improvements in children's health. [8] The Voting Rights Act (desegregation was a key goal of the War on Poverty) empowered African American communities politically and economically. [9] Access to a minimum standard of adequate shelter, food, heat and air conditioning, public education, and healthcare for the elderly are now the new American norm, which did not exist prior to 1964. [10]

3) The War on Poverty creates economic growth. People without money don't spend it. People with money do! This creates consumer demand, which in turn creates jobs and grows the economy. The taxpayer money that is invested in anti-poverty programs doesn't disappear; it generates a return on investment. "Public investments in the safety net—specifically, programs that target poor children—have been shown to generate exceptionally high returns that benefit all Americans" - for instance, Head Start programs have been shown to create a benefit to cost ratio of 7 to 1. [11]

4) The War on Poverty was particularly successful in reducing poverty among the elderly and African Americans. Among the elderly, the poverty rate has dropped from 35% in 1959 to 9% in 2012, largely due to the impact of a Medicare and SSI, both Johnson creations. [12] Using supplemental measures, the poverty rate among the elderly fell from 47 percent to 15 percent [6] Among African Americans, poverty fell more than half, from 57.8% in 1959 to 25.8%. [5] The War on Poverty specifically worked to provide economic opportunities for African Americans, [13] and used direct federal intervention to ensure that African Americans in the deep south were not excluded from anti-poverty programs. [2] The racial gap in poverty, while still substantial and problematic, has been reduced from 3x to 2x since 1964. [2]

click="document.location='/CASmnl42/photos/album/5111/35367/'" src="../../../photos/albums/1/6/5111/244158-5111-g7umy-a.jpg" alt="Elder" />

Of course, poverty is still with us today. Baked into the assumptions of the War on Poverty was a belief that a growing economy would tend to benefit everyone, poor and rich alike, as it had consistently in the past. [2] Since 1980 - not coincidentally associated with the onset of the anti-union, anti-regulation Reagan era - this has not been true; wages have stagnated at the bottom. Today, about 75% of the recipients of government assistance are working adults, employed full time in low-paying jobs. [14] The most effective anti-poverty measure available under these circumstances is an increase to the minimum wage. Yet, despite slashes to funding in anti-poverty programs [15], Johnson's War on Poverty has lifted millions out of poverty while dramatically improving the standard of living for those who remain poor. For that reason, I argue that the War on Poverty has been a stunningly effective success.

Over to Con, for his primary case

[2] A particularly good read is Legacies of the War on Poverty, edited by Martha J. Bailey and Sheldon Danziger. Chapter One is here:



In this debate, I will be focusing on 3 key points that demonstrate that the War on Poverty is a failure. First, the poverty rate has been relatively stagnant since its implementation. Second, the cost of the war on poverty has skyrocketed with no effect on poverty rates. Third, there are inherent problems with the war on poverty programs that make it unsuccessful in alleviating poverty.

The Poverty Rate Remains Unchanged after 5 Decades

The most significant piece of evidence to indicate that the war on poverty is a failure is by looking at the statistics.

Before Lynden B. Johnson started his War on Poverty, the poverty rate was in fact declining at a very quick rate. As you can see below, the poverty rate declined from nearly 35% in 1951 to around 19% in 1964.(1)

Proponents of the welfare initiatives set forth by Johnson like to attribute the initial decreases in poverty to these welfare programs. When one looks at the trends of the years before the start of the war, it’s easy to see that this is not the case. Poverty was trending downwards and the welfare initiatives, at the very least, did not continue this trend for very long.

Indeed, the poverty rate now is higher than it was in 1970. It’s unfortunate that the poverty rate has remained nearly unchanged despite 5 decades of experimentation with welfare.

The Cost of the War has Increased Exponentially

The fact that poverty has not been significantly affected is even more of a shame when cost is taken into account. Over time, the cost has increased drastically, with no significant effect on poverty.

Below, you can see the increase in welfare spending since 1950. The spending has increased constantly over the past few decades, and even the attempted reformed by Reagan in the 80’s and Clinton in the 90’s did little to stop this growth.(2)

This overlay more clearly demonstrates how ineffective the war on poverty has actually been. Even with costs constantly rising, people are still poor and their incomes have not risen significantly since its implementation.(1)

The graph below helps visualize how much money we actually spend per person by showing where the poverty threshold is for a family of 3, and how much we spend per person on welfare.(3)

What’s also alarming is the fact that welfare spending is one of the fastest growing expenditures in the federal budget, as shown below.(2)

Even with all of this money continually spent on welfare, people are not able to uplift themselves out of poverty.

The Welfare Programs have Backfired on the Poor

There are a few reasons why Johnson’s dream of eradicating poverty once and for all has not come to fruition, and it certainly isn’t because we haven’t tried hard enough with the programs he implemented. Despite our honest attempts, the war on poverty has come short. Why?

Currently, the welfare system is designed in a way where one receives benefits only if they are in a certain tax bracket. If one makes enough money to bring them slightly above that tax bracket, they can lose the benefits given to them by one of the 126 different federal programs. This is a problem, because in many cases, the benefits one loses from attaining a job or getting a raise actually makes him or her lose more value in benefits than they would gain in the additional income. This unfortunate consequence of the welfare system is what destroys the incentive to work and move up the economic ladder. This circumstance is what economists refer to as the welfare trap.

There are an abundance of examples of the welfare trap in action. One example is how a study in Illinois found that “A single mom has the most resources available to her family when she works full time at a wage of $8.25 to $12 an hour. Disturbingly, taking a pay increase to $18 an hour can leave her with about one-third fewer total resources (net income and government benefits). In order to make work “pay” again, she would need an hourly wage of $38 to mitigate the impact of lost benefits and higher taxes.” (4)
The welfare trap leads to an endless cycle of poverty among poor families and it is very difficult to get out of.

Another drawback of the current welfare system is it’s inefficient allocation of resources and it’s loaded bureaucracy. Today there are 126 separate federal anti-poverty programs. Each of them attempt to allocate resources in a separate way, and all of these separate programs with the same goal of reducing poverty is wasteful.

Above, you can see the percentage of welfare spending used up through bureaucracy. (5) The fact that it’s been increasing over the years should alarm you, as that’s less money going to helping people and less money in the economy.

One more problem with the welfare system that I will bring up is how it has had negative effects on family structure.

Welfare has had the unfortunate effect of increasing single-parenting and out-of-wedlock childbirths. As the Cato institute states, “Of the more than 20 major studies of the issue during the 1980s and 1990s, more than three-quarters showed a significant link between benefit levels and out-of-wedlock childbearing.”(6)

Another studied concluded that “higher base welfare benefits (1) lead unwed white mothers to forestall their eventual marriage, and (2) lead unwed black mothers to hasten their next birth.” (7) The reason these side effects are so significant is because they lead to a cycle of poverty.

This table shows how important marriage is in reducing childhood poverty. (8) You can see how a child born to a mother who never marries but gets a college will live nearly the same percentage of his or her life in poverty and a mother who gets married but is a high-school dropout.

This demonstrates how important family structure is in alleviating the cycle of poverty, and why we have to look at the effects the war on poverty has on the family structure.


In this round, I have demonstrated that the war on poverty has resulted in skyrocketing costs, wasteful bureaucratic expansion, negative effects on the family structure of poor people, and a welfare trap that prevents upward mobility. What have we gotten from all of the time, money, and effort in this war? Stagnant poverty rates over the past 50 years.

The primary goal of President Johnson’s War on poverty was to completely eradicate poverty. As the Washington Times puts it, “When Johnson launched the War on Poverty, he wanted to give the poor a “hand up, not a hand out.” He stated that his war would shrink welfare rolls and turn the poor from “tax-eaters” into “taxpayers.” Johnson’s aim was to make poor families self-sufficient — able to rise above poverty through their own earnings without dependence on welfare.” (9)

It’s clear that this war has not been won, and we aren’t any closer to reaching this goal than when he was in office. The welfare system is a failure by Johnson’s own standards, and by any reasonable standard we can come up with. When escalating costs leads to the same result for half a century, it’s time we admit it didn’t work and try something else.

I look forward to my opponent's response next round.











Debate Round No. 2


In this round, I will be rebutting my opponent's three primary arguments. I want to thank my opponent for his thoughtful post.

(Once again, graphs failed to load, to my frustration. Will post in comments)

Many of my opponent's points are based on flawed statistical reasoning. Also, many of my opponent's sources - like Heritage and Cato - are ideologically opposed to any spending on poverty. While they are very good at putting together attractive graphs, they very often cherry-pick data to reflect their pre-existing viewpoint. When all relevant factors are taken fully into account, the War on Poverty has been an astounding success.

The War on Poverty has Dramatically Reduced Poverty Rates

When the United States began tracking poverty in 1959, the official rate was 22.4%. It stayed between 21.0% and 22.5% through most of the Kennedy administration. It fell just slightly to 19.5% the year Johnson took office. After the War on Poverty commenced, poverty plummeted to 12.1% by the time Johnson left office, and reached its lowest point of 11.1% in 1973. Poverty wouldn't rise significantly again until the Reagan administration, when it quickly shot back up to 15%. [1]

My opponent emphasizes that poverty was already falling in the 50's, and suggests that the decline in poverty during the Johnson years was a continuation of a pre-existing trend, and that the War on Poverty not only failed to reduce poverty, but may even have fixed it at a higher level. But this is based on a misleading reading of the data:

1) Reductions in poverty prior to 1959 are based on incomplete data.

The sources for my opponent's chart are mixed-and-matched - data from 1959 onward is official Census data, but before 1959 - where my opponent shows the biggest drop - is based on a single researcher's estimate. Extending the data back even further illustrates why this quickly becomes absurd:

As this chart demonstrates, "[a]pplying the current official poverty line to an earlier era is problematic," as there is a "well-documented tendency for poverty lines to rise in real terms as mean real income rises." As a society becomes richer, it generates "a higher material standard of living for even the poorest segment of society." By relying on an "unchanging standard" - particularly one developed in a period of unprecedented growth - my opponent "exaggerate[s] the long-term decline in poverty" prior to the adoption of official measures. [2]

2) Poverty rates based on more accurate measures of income have continued to fall dramatically.

My opponent is right that in the past 30 years, the poverty rate has seemed stuck around 15%. But the official poverty rate does not take benefits into account - if the government wrote a $100,000 check to everyone under the poverty line, the Census' official poverty measure would ignore that income and count them as poor. This isn't a failure of the War on Poverty, it's a failure of accurate measurement. In real terms, the poverty rate has fallen from 25.8 percent in 1967 to 16.0 percent in 2012. [3]

3) Governmental spending is responsible for lowering poverty rates

Not only has poverty dropped, but government spending is the reason. In the graph below, the green line represents market poverty; the black line, actual poverty. The entire green shaded area represents people lifted from poverty by the safety net - people who would be impoverished by market forces, if not for government spending. Today, that gap is larger than ever. [4]

Early on, the effect of government programs is relatively small, but the gap rapidly widens. What does this mean for my opponent's case? Well, any reduction in poverty in the early post-war era can probably be attributed to the growing economy. But "the following decades, for the most part, have been characterized by slower economic growth than in the quarter century following World War II." [5]

Thus, since 1973, market forces have been driving poverty up - and government spending has been the corrective keeping poverty low. "Poverty persists, not because the ideas of the War on Poverty planners were fundamentally mistaken, but because the changing economy increased economic hardships for many workers." [5]

The Cost of The War on Poverty has Remained Steady and Reasonable

My opponent argues that the costs of the War on Poverty have increased dramatically. But he makes a critical error here that renders his conclusion invalid. My opponent compares total dollars spent - an absolute figure - to the poverty rate - a ratio. This would be fine if the population remained constant, but it hasn't - the US has more than doubled since 1950. Of course we're spending more on poverty reduction - we're spending more on everything, because there are more of us.

The easiest way to correct for this is to look at anti-poverty spending as a percentage of GDP:

This allows us to see what portion of our total economic output is being spent on poverty relief. After growing in the Johnson administration, spending on welfare has been pretty consistent at about 2% of GDP since 1973. Despite a Great-Recession-related spike, poverty spending is already re-settling at the usual 2% level. [6]

My opponent also cites a Cato Institute report for the contention that per-recipient spending on welfare for a family of three as of 2012 was nearly $60,000 per year. The source for this data? The "author's calculations." Author Michael Tanner has been known to exaggerate the benefits of welfare to individual recipients by, for instance, assuming that every household eligible for TANF is also receiving maximum housing subsidies, when in fact only 15% receive any. [7]

It's easy enough to do the rough math. The United States government spent $397.8 billion on means-tested aid programs in FY 2013. [8] That same year, there were 109.6 million Americans receiving some form of means-tested aid. [9] The average individual benefit, then, was only about $3,630. Though our calculation is simplistic, it shows Tanner's numbers to be grossly exaggerated.

My opponent's last chart in this section is calibrated to FY 2008, which was the beginning of the Recession-related spike, which is now settling back into the normal 2% level. My opponent's chart exaggerates the level of spending growth by relying on an outlying data point. [6]

Finally, my opponent somewhat drops a point about the administrative costs of welfare into his next argument, which I will address here. First of all, my opponent does not cite a source for this chart, so no one can judge its accuracy. The most recent numbers I have been able to locate are from 1989-1993, which indicate that administrative costs overall were about 8.7% of total spending. [10] I'm happy to engage on this point further if my opponent can provide a source for the data.

The Social Safety Net Provides a Path Out of Poverty

Let's start by acknowledging the kernel of truth in my opponent's argument concerning "welfare traps" - it is possible to concoct hypothetical scenarios in which a person receiving a particular combination of benefits would lose more than they gain by obtaining a minimum wage job. These are bugs in the system. (One easy correction would be to raise the minimum wage...).

But my opponent leaves the impression that these bugs are common, when they are not. On average, a working person on benefits will net $0.70 of every wage-dollar - about the same as the middle class. [11]

If my opponent were correct, very few people on benefits would ever exit the system. But this isn't true - nearly 45% of American adults will use safety net programs for at least a year, but of those, only 16% remain in the system for five years or more. Thus, more than one quarter of Americans will use the safety net at some point in their life, and it will help them escape poverty. [12]

Chronic poverty is rare in this country - a meaningful success in this War. Only 6% of people spend five consecutive years in poverty, and less than 2% will spend more than ten. If welfare were a trap, those numbers would be a lot higher. [12]

Finally, my opponent argues that welfare discourages marriage and encourages single parenthood. The problem is with my opponent's use of the word "significant." A trend can be statistically significant (i.e., noticeable) without having very much effect. If you track my opponent's cited sources back to the original studies, however, the researchers acknowledge that "the magnitudes of these effects are small." [13]

Women’s increased economic prospects, the availability of birth control, and changes in social norms have pushed back marriage ages and changed fertility patterns across all demographics. And indeed, at the times when marriage rates declined most significantly, benefits were going down - the inverse of what we would expect if welfare was a cause of these patterns. Indeed, "some research suggests that public income supports may increase marriage rates, possibly by helping low-income couples achieve the financial stability seen by some as a prerequisite for marriage." [5]


I have shown that my opponent's case relies on cherry-picked data and errors in statistical reasoning - some of which are, it seems, designed to be intentionally misleading by ideologically-driven authors at Cato and Heritage. When looking at the numbers in total context, the War on Poverty has dramatically reduced poverty rates over time, providing a necessary corrective to market pressures that would increase poverty. It costs us a pretty consistent 2% of GDP to accomplish this feat, and it has practically ended chronic poverty in the US and provided a path out of poverty for about more than one-fourth of Americans.




Valladarex forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 3


CASmnl42 forfeited this round.


It's unfortunate that my opponent has not rebutted my round 3 arguments. In case you missed what I said in the comments, I missed the deadline but I also posted my arguments afterwards and they can be seen here:

I believe that I have proved that the war on poverty has led to stagnation in poverty rates, is skyrocketing in cost, and has unintentionally backfired on the very poor citizens that it was intended to help uplift.

The war on poverty has led to perverse incentives where marriage, a very important catalyst in decreasing poverty, is less likely to exist in poor populations because of policies that make it more expensive to marry while on welfare.

The war on poverty has created a welfare trap, where people who are given benefits find it difficult to increase their income and move up the economic ladder, as doing so may decrease the net income of their combined welfare benefits and salary.

The war on poverty is a very well-intentioned fight that should be relooked at and changed to better help the poor find a way to uplift themselves from their unfortunate circumstances. It's hard to begin making these major changes when many are unwilling to admit this simple truth: The war on poverty has failed.
Debate Round No. 4
11 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by Valladarex 3 years ago
I apologize for missing the deadline on the 3rd round. I did make an argument, but I fell asleep before I was able to post it. Here is my argument for the 3rd round:

This website has been glitchy lately, so if the images don't show up, I also made an image of my arguments:

Finally, the sources appear to be broken, so here is the multi-url:
Posted by CASmnl42 3 years ago
After about an hour of experimenting (,, it looks like the problem can be fixed in Firefox - even though I have to upload the photos in Chrome or IE. Anyway, will attempt that in the final round. Again, my apologies.
Posted by CASmnl42 3 years ago
And, that doesn't work well, either.

Here's a link to an imgur album with all the graphs I attempted to use. In order, they are:
1) Official poverty rate drops to 11.1%, rises with Reagan
2) Supplemental poverty measures show continuing reduction in poverty
3) Using a static measure of poverty exagerates poverty in the past
4) Green area is the difference between market poverty and actual poverty
5) Welfare spending holds largely constant at 2%
6) 45% of Americans use the safety net
7) Chronic poverty is uncommon.

I have been following the posted instructions for imbedding photos in an argument, so if someone can make a suggestion - plugin settings? - I'd listen to it.
Posted by CASmnl42 3 years ago
I am deeply frustrated by my apparent inability to load graphs in the main body of the argument - I even did a test run yesterday, but for whatever reason, the graphs turn to HTML gibberish once I review the argument. I will attempt to post here.
Posted by Valladarex 3 years ago
Henry, I advise you to not judge based on things that are not included in the actual debate rounds. That's not the way the voting system works.
Posted by henryzietlow 3 years ago
Way to not allow Jimmy to debate you. As a judge, you will be losing conduct points for calling Jimmy a "jackass"
Posted by 2ninjacat 3 years ago
JimmyBoJangles is good, okay? Let it so we can debate cause I am also interested. Just change the settings ;)
Posted by Valladarex 3 years ago
I'll accept, just make it so I can.
Posted by JimmyBoJangles 3 years ago
Dude cmon I recently went on a few month sabbatical from this site due to new and exciting opportunities in my art career. The experiences have made take life more seriously, and I am willing to take this debate seriously as well. I am also no longer a jackass (I don't know if I ever was) and have learned to be more inclusive and caring and less jackassy.
Posted by CASmnl42 3 years ago
No. Based on a read of your prior debates, you're a bit of a jackass. I'd rather close the debate than have someone not take it seriously.
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