Acton Institute Powerblog

By the Numbers: The War on Poverty

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povertyFifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave his 1964 State of the Union Speech, in which he launched the ‘war on poverty.’ Within four years of that speech, the Johnson administration enacted a broad ran of programs, including the the Job Corps, Upward Bound, Head Start, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the Social Security amendments creating Medicare/Medicaid, the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and over a dozen others.

Here are a few numbers related to governmental efforts to eradicate poverty in America:

33 million — Number of Americans who were living in poverty when the ‘war on poverty’ was declared in 1964.

46.5 million — Number of Americans who are living in poverty today.

19% — Poverty rate in 1964.

15% — Poverty rate in 2013.

126 — Current number of different federal programs aimed at fighting poverty

$15,000,000,000,000 — Total local, state, and federal spending on welfare programs since the beginning of the ‘war on poverty.’

$1,000,000,000,000 —Amount the U.S. spends annually on welfare programs.

$20,610 — Annual amount spent for every poor person in America ($61,830 per poor family of three).

25% – Poverty rate among single-dads.

31% — Poverty rate among single moms.

6% — Poverty rate among married couples.

0.001% — Poverty rate among married couples who both have full-time jobs.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • What is often omitted when discussing LBJ’s War On Poverty is King’s critique of that war. King criticized LBJ’s war not necessarily because of the programs, but because of the diversion of funds that war and increased military spending caused with the escalation of the Vietnam War. In the past few years, the US has been spending over $1 trillion spread out over more than a few budgets. Thus, we are still dealing with the same obstacles in further reducing poverty that was faced in King’s day. Furthermore, many of our foreign policies, including military interventions, are increasing the possibility of reprisals that would only further future military spending. We should also note how the poor are the only recipients of government aid to house people (see

  • Thanks for this, Joe. What is it they say about doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same disastrous results? Worth a read … Robert Rector: How the War on Poverty Was Lost

    LBJ promised that the war on poverty would be an “investment” that would “return its cost manifold to the entire economy.” But the country has invested $20.7 trillion in 2011 dollars over the past 50 years. What does America have to show for its investment? Apparently, almost nothing: The official poverty rate persists with little improvement.

    • ErikKengaard

      LBJ – one disaster after another . . .

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  • You should add that measures of inequality had declined until shortly after these programs had been implemented and then began rising again. The lowest point for inequality was about 1973. Is there cause/effect here? I think there is. Though intended to reduce inequality and help the poor, such programs increase taxes and reduce investment that creates new and better jobs. The US cut inequality by 2/3 through investment from 1800 to 1973. When investment began to lag inequality increased. The old USSR had greater inequality than the US, but at a much lower level overall.

  • What I’m saying is, why does this argument only cut against the government?

    Good question. The simple explanation is that the efforts by the private sector are not using other people’s money. The government is taking money from it from some of it citizens (by force) and using it ineffectively to help other citizens. As the numbers show, we could just give cash to the poor and it’d be more effective at alleviating poverty than the current system.

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  • ErikKengaard

    Total local, state, and federal spending on welfare programs? What programs are included?

  • ErikKengaard

    Much of our poverty is imported.