Raw Data: Who’s Winning the War on Poverty?

As an old saw says, we’ve been fighting the war on poverty for half a century and poverty won. But is that true?

The poorest households have an average market income of $20,000. After means-tested assistance programs and tax credits are included, their income is $36,000. Working-class families see an increase from $44,000 to $49,000. Income groups above that are net losers, paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits.

We could do a lot more, but it looks to me as if poverty has taken a serious beating—and this doesn’t even count Social Security and Medicare, which have taken millions of seniors out of poverty. So why does it often seem as if poverty won the war? I can think of a few reasons:

  • It’s still around. This has not been the kind of unconditional surrender that Americans love. It’s a grinding effort that goes on forever, and on city streets poverty can often appear to be worse than ever.
  • It’s too complicated. Yes, a lot of money gets disbursed, but it’s broken up into dozens of programs that all require separate applications; have to be renewed constantly; and yo-yo around depending on the vagaries of income and congressional largesse. Even the recipients of government assistance probably don’t realize how much help they’re actually getting.
  • Medicaid. A fair amount of means-tested assistance comes in the form of Medicaid and CHIP, which doesn’t actually put money in anyone’s pocket or buy anyone’s dinner.
  • It helps the wrong people. There are plenty of folks who think of money going to blacks and Hispanics as little better than flushed down the drain. Needless to say, conservatives do their best to encourage this view.

Life is still hard for a lot of people, but don’t be overly pessimistic about how much we’ve accomplished. Poverty will never be completely eradicated, but we’ve done a helluva lot to put it on the run.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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