Skip to content Skip to footer

Economic Opportunity Has Collapsed, So Poverty Endures

Paul Krugman: “If progress against poverty has been disappointing over the past half century, the reason is not the decline of the family, but the rise of extreme inequality.”

I wanted to say something about the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

By 1980 or so, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, there was widespread consensus that it had failed. But, as the C.B.P.P. also concluded in an online article earlier this month, that doesn’t stand up once you do the numbers right: poverty measures that take into account government aid – aid of the kind provided by the war on poverty! – do show a significant decline since the 1960s.

There’s more sheer misery in America than there should be, but less than there was. Even so, progress against poverty has obviously been disappointing. But why? At this point in the argument, it’s important to realize that American conservatives are stuck with a fossil narrative – a story about persistent poverty that may have had something to it three decades ago, but is all wrong now.

The narrative in the 1970s was that the war on poverty had failed because of social disintegration: government attempts to help the poor were outpaced by the collapse of the family, rising crime and so on. And on the right, and to some extent in the center, it was often argued that government aid was if anything promoting this social disintegration.

Poverty was therefore a problem of values and social cohesion, not money. That was always much less true than the elite wanted to believe; as the sociologist William Julius Wilson showed long ago, the decline of urban employment opportunities actually had a lot do with the social disintegration. Still, there was something to it.

But that was a long time ago. These days crime is way down, so is teenage pregnancy, and so on; society did not collapse. What collapsed instead was economic opportunity. If progress against poverty has been disappointing over the past half century, the reason is not the decline of the family, but the rise of extreme inequality.

The United States is a much richer nation now than it was in 1964, but little if any of that increased wealth has trickled down to workers in the bottom half of the income distribution. The trouble is that the American right is still living in the 1970s, or actually a Reaganite fantasy of the 1970s; its notion of an anti-poverty agenda is still all about getting those layabouts to go to work and stop living off welfare.

The reality that lower-end jobs, even if a person can get one, don’t pay enough to lift people out of poverty just hasn’t sunken in. And the idea of helping the poor by actually helping them remains anathema. Will it ever be possible to move this debate away from welfare queens and all that? I don’t know. But for now, the key to understanding poverty arguments is that the main cause of persistent poverty is high inequality of market income – but the right can’t bring itself to acknowledge that reality.