Publication Date

9-18-2014

Abstract

[Excerpt] Poverty in the United States—and initiatives to address poverty—is a current topic of discussion among policy makers and researchers. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, launched in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson. The rate of poverty has declined since then, yet poverty persists. The number of people officially counted as poor in 2013 was 45.3 million and the official poverty rate was 14.5%. Numerous research articles, editorials, statements by Members of Congress, and congressional hearings have marked the 50th anniversary, revealing different viewpoints on the effectiveness of past and current policies, and offering new initiatives for consideration.

The topic of poverty is much broader than a single program or set of programs. In public policy discussions, the terms “poverty” and “welfare” are often intertwined, with “welfare” generally thought of as cash assistance for the poor. However, more universal social insurance programs— such as Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Insurance—may be the nation’s most important antipoverty programs. Looking more broadly, poverty is affected by many aspects of public policy, ranging from macroeconomic policies to antidiscrimination laws to a national commitment for universal public education.

Reducing or ameliorating poverty has not been widely articulated as the explicit goal of major policy debates in many years, although the impact of policy decisions might directly affect the incidence or characteristics of poverty. For example, the decades-long discussion that resulted in the 1996 welfare reform law focused on moving recipients of cash assistance off the rolls and into jobs, along with related policies designed to “make work pay” better than welfare receipt. The debate preceding enactment of health reform in 2010 focused on expanding access to health insurance for uncovered populations and making coverage more secure for those who had it, among other things. Both of these initiatives were implicitly related to poverty, but neither was promoted explicitly for antipoverty purposes.

Most recently, some Members of Congress have introduced legislation, or announced elements of potential proposals, framed in the broad context of addressing poverty. These proposals would touch upon numerous existing federal programs. While the specifics differ—and in some cases are still being developed, these proposals reflect certain common themes that have characterized discussions of antipoverty policy for many years. Likewise, policies advocated by the Obama Administration also can be examined in the context of these overarching historic themes.

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Suggested Citation
Falk, G., & Spar, K. (2014). Poverty: Major themes in past debates and current proposals. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.

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