In 1987, President Ronald Reagan quipped, “We had a War on Poverty back in the sixties; poverty won.”
With full respect to the former president, let me suggest that the War is still being fought and that its ongoing provisions are still keeping millions of Americans out of poverty.
According to a recent report issued by the Council of Economic Advisors, “The War on Poverty 50 Years Later: A Progress Report,” poverty has declined by more than one-third since 1967 due to the effectiveness of the War on Poverty and the many associated programs that either emerged or were expanded then: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and many other interventions. In specific the report states:
Social Security benefits reduced the 2012 poverty rate by 8.5 percent among all individuals, and by 39.9 percent among those aged 65 or older. Poverty among those aged 65 and older was at 35 percent in 1960! It’s less than 15 percent today.
Tax credits such as EITC and Child Tax Credits reduced the 2012 poverty rate by 3 percent among all individuals, and by 6.7 percent among children.
SNAP —formerly known as Food Stamps— reduced overall poverty by 1.6 percent and by 3 percent among children.
Community Action of Ventura County, our county’s designated lead in the War on Poverty, helped over 4,000 low-income households last year with their utility bills through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. We weatherized hundreds of homes — permanently reducing the energy costs of those struggling families. We helped hundreds of homeless persons with everyday needs and helped dozens of them find permanent housing. We enrolled hundreds of families in some of the programs listed above — one family at a time.
But before we break out the champagne, let’s remember that far too many of our neighbors here in Ventura County live below the poverty line — more than 90,000 people.
A combination of forces is making it more and more difficult for people to climb the economic ladder.
Costs of basic needs are so high in Ventura County that it takes substantially more than poverty wages to survive. The average two-bedroom apartment costs $1,550 per month. A job at minimum wage earns a whopping $1,560. That doesn’t leave much for food, utilities, gas, medical care or even taxes.
Income inequality is frustrating upward mobility. Since 1980, an ever increasing share of income and wealth are moving toward the “haves” and away from the “have nots.” So when a recovery happens, virtually no one at the bottom feels it. People in the economic bottom fifth of our society are actually seeing their buying power go down.
Access to education is becoming more challenging as prospective students face tuition costs and student loans the size of mortgages.
No, we have not lost the War on Poverty, but we haven’t won it either.
Rather than give up, let me suggest it’s time to breathe new life into this nation’s commitment to shared prosperity, social justice, and economic opportunity for all.
Tim Hockett is Executive Director of Community Action of Ventura County. CAVC has entered its 50th year of helping people and changing lives in Ventura County. Find out more at www.ca-vc.org