50 years of the War on Poverty. But which poverty?

American President Lyndon Baines Johnson addresses the nation on his first Thanksgiving Day television programme, broadcast from the executive offices of the White House.

Today marks 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson declared an unconditional war on poverty. He vowed not to rest until the war was won. Well, winning has proved complicated over the decades. And it turns out, gauging success depends partly on how you measure poverty.

Fifteen percent of Americans live in poverty. That official rate hasn’t dropped much since 1964. But official measurements only count a family’s cash income.

Sharon Parrott of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says they ignore non-cash benefits, which have grown in importance.

“So the official poverty measure acts as though the food stamp program, or the earned income tax credits don’t actually increase people’s incomes and help them escape poverty,” Parrott says.

The Census Bureau has started releasing a supplemental poverty measure, which factors in the effects of a broader range of safety-net programs. But this alternate measure only goes back a few years.

Researchers at Columbia University recently did their own study. They found that this fuller range of anti-poverty programs has actually reduced poverty by 40 percent since the late 1960s.

Doug Besharov of the University of Maryland agrees there’s been a lot of progress. But he thinks the official poverty measure works pretty well.

“As we change the way we measure it, we effectively move the goal posts,” he says. “And we also obscure how much has to be done.”

There are roughly 50 million Americans living in poverty, by either measure. Still a ways to go to win the war.

About the author

Kate Davidson is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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