There’s something going awry with economic mobility in this country: It is now strikingly clear that not much has improved since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty. This is evident in our post-recession economy and illustrated in a new study by the Center for American Progress that highlights how people view poverty in America. The results are startling:
- One-quarter to one-third of Americans—and even higher percentages of Millennials and people of color—continue to experience direct economic hardship.
- 61 percent of Americans say their family’s income is falling behind the cost of living, compared to just 8 percent who feel they are getting ahead and 29 percent who feel they are staying even.
- 54 percent of Americans say that someone in their immediate or extended families is poor, a figure that has actually increased 2 percentage points since CAP conducted its first poll on this subject in 2008. Nearly two in three African Americans (65 percent) report a direct connection to poverty, while 59 percent of Hispanics say the same.
- Americans vastly overestimate the annual income necessary to be officially considered poor.
- Americans now believe that nearly 40 percent of their fellow citizens are living in poverty.
- 64 percent Americans believe that poverty is primarily the result of a failed economy rather than the result of personal decisions and lack of effort.
- The public is clear about its priorities for reducing poverty: jobs, wages, and education.
- Seven in 10 Americans support reducing poverty by half over the next 10 years.
The war on poverty produced key federal and state initiatives—Head Start, Medicare, Medicare, Medicaid, nutrition assistance—that reduced the number of people living in poverty to a historic of 11.1 percent. Those same programs are now under attack during a time when 15.1 percent of Americans are living in poverty, including 20 million children, and the economy remains fragile.
The study also reveals what the majority of Americans believe should be done to reduce and combat poverty:
- 86 percent of Americans agree that the government has a responsibility to use some of its resources to combat poverty.
- 86 percent of Americans support helping low-wage workers afford quality child care; 85 percent support expanding nutritional assistance to struggling families; 84 percent support universal pre-kindergarten for all children; 84 percent support expanding publicly funded scholarships to help more families afford college; and 80 percent support increasing the minimum wage and making sure it rises with inflation.
These policy prescriptions are currently before Congress, yet are continually ignored and obstructed by conservative members of Congress.
Pernicious policies aimed at helping those at the top have not trickled down and only exacerbated inequality. What started 50 years ago as an economic and moral imperative has been transformed into a War on the Poor over poverty.
The unfinished crusade that began with President Johnson is now starting to reemerge in the form of a new economic populist movement. The public’s top priorities are clear: jobs, wages, and education—not deficit reduction.