Poverty, Inequality and Mobility in a Free Society: Can We Do Better?

There has been a lot of public attention given to these topics recently.  Our stagnant economy since the end of the recession almost five years ago has meant high levels of unemployment and underemployment which naturally causes widespread discontent.  The 50th anniversary of President Johnson declaring War on Poverty provides an opportunity to look back and evaluate its success.
A very good summary of where we stand on poverty was given two years ago by Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation: “Understanding Poverty in the United States: Surprising Facts about America’s Poor”.  The authors used 2010 census data for their study.  Poverty was defined to be a cash income of $22,314 or less for a family of four in 2010 (which increased to $23,550 in 2013).  They pointed out, for example, that “96% of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food.”  The chart below shows that poor households, in general, have many of the common amenities.
CaptureIn other words, the close to $1 trillion spent per year ($871 billion in 2010) by federal and state governments on means tested assistance for the poor has largely eliminated destitute poverty in the U.S.  Further progress will require successfully addressing both the collapse of marriage and the lack of parental work in low-income communities.  These very difficult problems can only be addressed with a long term educational effort to turn poor children into productive citizens.
Conclusion:  the War on Poverty has had reasonable success at huge cost and further gains will be more expensive and more drawn out over time.  We’ve already started on this second phase by emphasizing early childhood education and so the focus now should be to implement this new direction.
Next step: it’s now time to direct our serious attention to the issues of inequality and mobility.  That will be the subject of my next post!