On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty” to combat the nation’s high poverty rate of 19 percent. In his State of the Union address, he identified the root causes of poverty as structural in nature: “The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.” A key strategy, he concluded, was to invest in “better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans.”
In the ensuing years, policymakers created, expanded, or made permanent a host of programs to ensure that families and their children have access to resources that support their health and well-being, even in challenging times. These programs included Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps (which later became the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), Head Start, housing assistance, and Job Corps.
In large part due to the increased investment in anti-poverty programs over the past 30 years, there has been a relatively steady decline in the poverty rate among children, when measured to include benefits from federal anti-poverty programs. This matters because we know from decades of research that poverty experienced early in life, persistent poverty, and deep poverty can have especially detrimental effects on children’s development, and on their longer-term health and economic well-being.
We have made considerable progress in waging Johnson’s “war on poverty.” However, there is more work to be done. More than one in 10 children remain in poverty and gaps in poverty levels across racial and ethnic groups persist. In recognition of the 60th anniversary of the War on Poverty, this brief highlights three areas on which policymakers must focus their efforts to continue to reduce child and family poverty and address persistent economic disparities across racial and ethnic groups.
Many children live in families without stably employed parents, and these families are particularly likely to experience poverty. In 2021, just under one in three children (29%) had parents who lacked secure employment. At the same time, our research found that children with a stably employed parent experienced a larger decline in poverty rates over the past quarter century, compared to children without stably employed parents. Increased labor market participation by single mothers in recent decades also contributed to the decline in child poverty. Taken together, these findings suggest that parental employment is a key pathway to economic stability and that removing barriers to employment can play a key role in lifting children out of poverty.
However, many families that are actively working still experience poverty. For instance, among children experiencing poverty (as defined by the Official Poverty Measure, or OPM), more than one in three (36%) live with at least one family member who works full-time and year-round. And while active participation in the labor force increasingly serves as a pathway out of poverty for many families, in 2021, 7.6 percent of children lived in households experiencing poverty (as defined by the OPM) despite having at least one family member participating in the labor force for 27 or more weeks. The same analysis found that, in addition to involuntary spells of unemployment, low wages are a leading factor behind why individuals participating in the labor force can have incomes below the federal poverty level.
To promote family economic well-being, we need programs and policies aimed at supporting stable work and making work pay. More specifically, work supports—such as increased access to high-quality early child care and education programs, family-friendly work policies like paid family leave, and out-of-school-time programs for school-age children—are needed to promote stable parental employment and support children’s positive development. In addition, because a substantial portion of children grow up with working parents and still experience poverty, we need strategies to make work pay more. For instance, researchers at Child Trends and other organizations have found that programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, along with policies to increase states’ minimum wages, are effective in lifting millions of children out of poverty each year.
Many additional structural factors beyond those noted here also serve as employment barriers to parents, and especially to mothers who serve as household heads in a significant portion of families experiencing poverty and low income. These factors include a lack of affordable, stable housing; inadequate parental leave and sick benefits; low pay and undervaluation of care work, service industry work, and other fields in which women (particularly women of color) are heavily represented; systemic racial and gender discrimination; uneven access to educational opportunities; and lack of inclusionary policies. A broader and diverse set of policies would help address these structural barriers to employment.
While considerable work (including our own) has highlighted trends in rates of child poverty, we know that children thrive when their families thrive. Policymakers must envision and recraft anti-poverty programs as a critical investment in the healthy development of children and their families—one that yields a substantial return on investment for society in the form of reduced burden on health care and other child- and family-serving systems, as well as greater tax revenues.
Federal anti-poverty programs have contributed substantially to the decline in poverty, but important gaps remain in who these programs reach, due in part to eligibility and other exclusions based on parent characteristics. First, our current safety net is heavily comprised of programs that provide assistance to working families who live near or above the poverty threshold. Benefits that are conditioned on parental work, however, may leave behind families living in deep poverty—families in which parents often face significant barriers to stable employment alongside multiple co-occurring challenges. Second, the social safety net currently excludes many immigrant families—the vast majority of whom include children and other family members who are U.S. citizens—from accessing benefits due to restrictions based on parents’ or other family members’ immigration status. Third, restrictions embedded within program eligibility rules (e.g., “family caps”) and structural barriers (e.g., lower welfare spending in geographies where Black and brown families disproportionately reside) often limit access to benefits based on additional parent characteristics. These program restrictions are rooted in false, harmful, and often racist narratives that underlie conceptions of deservingness in our country—narratives that view parents without stable employment, parents who experience persistent or deep poverty, single mothers, and Black and brown parents as less deserving of assistance in spite of the pervasive barriers to accessing economic mobility opportunities they disproportionately face. By focusing on misconceptions about deservingness rather than need, these exclusionary policies limit anti-poverty programs’ ability to support the health and well-being of all families and their children.
A system of economic well-being programs centered on children and families would intentionally integrate child and family well-being into its mission and goals (and performance standards), base eligibility on need rather than parental characteristics, and address structural barriers to employment and economic inclusion. Recrafting our anti-poverty programs to focus on improving child and family well-being would not only enhance programs’ ability to reduce poverty and address economic inequities, but also ensure that our investment in these programs will pay off in the long run.
How we design and deliver economic supports matters. Many families do not receive the safety net benefits for which they are eligible, due to administrative barriers, limited awareness or incomplete information about a program, complex and confusing eligibility rules, and various stigmas. These barriers limit the reach and, in turn, the effectiveness of the nation’s investment in its economic well-being programs; and, because many of these barriers to accessing benefits and other forms of supports are disproportionately borne by marginalized populations—in other words, those with less power and the fewest resources—they exacerbate already existing disparities.
To meaningfully reduce barriers to accessing needed supports, programs and policies should meet families where they are. This includes streamlining processes and reducing the number of obstacles families must navigate. Strategies found to reduce administrative burden and improve program access include putting information and applications online, developing combined application processes to facilitate access to multiple programs with similar means-tested eligibility criteria, simplifying program rules, and reducing documentation requirements. Automatic enrollment, categorical eligibility, and community eligibility provisions also serve to shift burdens from individual families to the state. But families also benefit from directly receiving information about programs for which they are eligible (particularly information that uses destigmatizing language) and support in applying. Navigator services that provide personalized support are particularly beneficial and often account for families’ unique circumstances and coordinate supports to address families’ full confluence of needs. Programs that prioritize flexible use of benefits (e.g., through direct cash assistance or Electronic Benefits Transfer cards) maximize the ability of families to meet their unique needs.
Anti-poverty policies launched as part of the War on Poverty—and the related policies they have influenced—have driven the decline in child poverty over the past 25 years. To continue the progress made, policymakers must keep their focus on families with children and strengthen policies and programs that reduce barriers to parental employment, increase family income, and improve access to the social safety net for all families with children. Such efforts will have the joint benefit of reducing child poverty while also supporting children’s development.
The authors would like to thank the following individuals for their thoughtful reviews and comments: Yiyu Chen, Brent Franklin, Jody Franklin, Kristen Harper, and Renee Ryberg.
Redd, Z., & Thomson, D. (2024). Reflections on the 60th anniversary of the War on Poverty. Child Trends. DOI: 10.56417/6146c4279q
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