Why have past efforts to address poverty not resulted in more meaningful improvements for distressed neighborhoods?

Lesson Learned

Public and private interventions over the past half century have helped to alleviate some of the effects of being poor, but they have done too little to address the root causes. We have learned that more comprehensive approaches are necessary to disrupt and remove the many complex drivers of place-based poverty.

Our research finds there have been successes in relieving some of the more dire consequences of poverty, but little progress has been made in eradicating poverty itself.

When Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, there was a fundamental belief that poverty was a result of people not having access to the basic necessities of life, and that the struggle to attain those necessities meant people could not invest in themselves in a way that would lead them to higher incomes and ultimately self-sufficiency. In other words, if we could just get people out of abject poverty by providing a basic safety net, they could put themselves on a path to prosperity.

The programs and initiatives that emerged based on this idea—and those that still predominate today—are reflective of that thinking. Food stamps, housing vouchers, Medicaid, direct aid to families, and other companion programs were primarily designed to close the gap between what people actually earned in the private economy and what they needed to achieve a decent standard of living. What these programs did—and still do—is relieve the misery associated with being poor, but there is little evidence that they actually put people on a path to self-sufficiency, at least not in any systematic way.

Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Photo by Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office

A child born into poverty today has no better chance to escape poverty as an adult than they did half a century ago. Framed this way, what jumps out is that the problem is not getting better, and by some measures, it is getting worse.

Revitalizing the American Dream

"Poverty is one of our nation’s biggest threats. It’s killing the American dream for 46 million adults and over 16 million children. Worse yet, half of those children live in concentrated poverty."

- Rodney Byrnes
Avondale Meadows / Indianapolis

The country spends around $1 trillion each year on poverty-related programs, but nearly 40 million Americans are unable to consistently earn incomes that provide for a basic standard of living. A child born in 1940 had a 90% chance of earning more than their parents; a child born in 1985 has only a 50% chance.

When Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, just over 19% of Americans were classified as living in poverty. In 2019, that number was 12.3%. At the same time, the actual number of Americans living in poverty has increased from 34 to 39 million due to overall population growth. Measured in this way, the war on poverty is clearly failing.

Based on our own work, we would suggest that the goal of “preventing” poverty should be reframed as ending “intergenerational” poverty – that is, abolishing the connection between the circumstances of a child’s birth and his or her chance of living in poverty as an adult.

In 1964, President Johnson acknowledged that the effort to end poverty in America would be a difficult but worthy undertaking; “It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

However, more than half a century later, we are not producing young adults who are upwardly mobile with a low risk of ending up back in poverty. The President was correct in at least one regard: the struggle has been neither short nor easy. Since the mid-1960s, the overall poverty rate has remained relatively consistent. Using consumption (rather than income) based measures, the picture is more encouraging in the sense that although people are still not earning enough income to provide a decent standard of living, income transfers through government programs are ensuring that they are not living in abject poverty.

The Great Society programs and those that followed have provided access to food relief, decent housing and medical care. When Bobby Kennedy did his tour of rural poverty in Mississippi in 1967, he found desperate housing conditions and malnourished children, conditions that have largely (though not entirely) been eliminated. Of course, supplementing incomes to avoid malnutrition and homelessness was not the intent of the war on poverty.

Johnson said, “our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” If the goal was to prevent poverty, then it is hard to argue that the war on poverty has been successful at all.

The information for this Lesson Learned is included in POVERTY AND PLACE: A Review of the Science and Research That Have Impacted Our Work, a white paper that offers an overview of selected research that has informed our thinking as we continue to fight against intergenerational urban poverty.

Successful holistic revitalization requires many complex, interrelated elements. Anyone could take this idea and make it work in any community. The model is there and the barrier has been broken.

– Andrew Young, Former U.N. Ambassador and Former Atlanta Mayor

Purpose Built Communities is supported by:

Ballmer Group
Bloomberg Philanthropies
Blue Meridian Partners
Cousins Foundations
GA Power
KPMG Foundation
Warren Buffett