The war on poverty at age 50: What US social programs worked and which failed?

Harvard scholar Christopher Jencks reviews an edited volume, Legacies of the War on Poverty, where some of the best economists weigh in on what worked and what didn’t. Superb review. I learned a lot. The review was in two parts, and here’s the conclusion:

On the one hand, there have clearly been more successes than today’s Republicans acknowledge, at least in public. Raising Social Security benefits played a major part in cutting poverty among the elderly. The Earned Income Tax Credit cut poverty among single mothers. Food stamps improve living standards for most poor families. Medicaid also improves the lives of the poor. Even Section 8 rent subsidies, which I have not discussed, improve living standards among the poor families lucky enough to get one, although the money might do more good if it were distributed in a less random way. Head Start also turns out to help poor children stay on track for somewhat better lives than their parents had.

On the other hand, Republican claims that antipoverty programs were ineffective and wasteful also appear to have been well founded in many cases. Title I spending on elementary and secondary education has had few identifiable benefits, although the design of the program would make it hard to identify such benefits even if they existed. Relying on student loans rather than grants to finance the early years of higher education has discouraged an unknown number of low-income students from entering college, because of the fear that they will not be able to pay the loans back if they do not graduate. Job-training programs for the least employable have also yielded modest benefits. The community action programs that challenged the authority of elected local officials during the 1960s might have been a fine idea if they had been privately funded, but using federal money to pay for attacks on elected officials was a political disaster.

The fact that the War on Poverty included some unsuccessful programs is not an indictment of the overall effort. Failures are an inevitable part of any program that requires experimentation. The problem is that most of these programs still exist. Job-training programs that don’t work still pop up and disappear. Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act still pushes money into the hands of educators who do not raise poor children’s test scores. It has had little in the way of tangible results. Increasingly large student loans still allow colleges to raise tuition faster than family incomes rise, and rising costs still discourage many poor students from attending or completing college.

It takes time to produce disinterested assessments of political programs. The Government Accountability Office has done good assessments of some narrowly defined programs, but assessing strategic choices about how best to fight poverty has been left largely to journalists, university scholars, and organizations like the Russell Sage Foundation, which paid for Legacies. Scholars are not completely disinterested either, but in this case we can be grateful that a small group has helped us reach a more balanced judgment about a noble experiment. We did not lose the War on Poverty. We gained some ground. Quite a lot of ground.