‘Based on historical standards of material wellbeing and the terms of engagement, our War on Poverty is largely over and a success.”
That’s from a new report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers. The announcement triggered a certain amount of incredulity. Had the CEA visited poorer urban, exurban and rural communities? If the War on Poverty is largely over and a success, why does poverty still seem to hold so many fortified positions? Though the incredulous don’t necessarily realize it, they’re engaged in a vital methodological debate: What does it even mean these days to say that someone is poor?
Journalists and advocates often use the bottom 10 or 20 percent of income distribution as a quick proxy for “disadvantage.” This measure has the advantage of being easy to calculate. But it is imprecise. An academic of my acquaintance once noted that he spent years in a place where almost everyone was in the bottom quintile of income and many people were eligible for government benefits — but it was still pretty pleasant, given that it was graduate student housing at an Ivy League school.
If we abandon the easy measure, however, we plunge into deep water. Does poverty mean deprivation of the most basic material necessities, such as food, shelter and health care? The federal poverty threshold was devised with this sort of poverty in mind, and it was a reasonable measure for the early 1960s, when a high percentage of the population still lived without adequate food, heat or weatherproof shelter.
By that measure, the War on Poverty has been a success; though many families still live below the poverty line, the material conditions for most of them have been raised by a combination of economic and technological advancement, stricter building codes and non-cash benefits that aren’t counted as income in the poverty measures but still provide access to basics such as food and health care. Aside from a fraction of street homeless, most Americans have a weatherproof roof, enough food to keep their bodies from failing and enough clothing and fuel to stay reasonably warm in the winter.
Conservatives point out all the things that economic progress has brought to the poor: refrigerators, cars, mobile phones. But no less a conservative than Adam Smith has pointed out that poverty is not an objective fact but a relative condition. “A linen shirt, for example,” he wrote, “is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times . . . a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty.”
As society progresses, one generation’s luxuries become another’s necessities, not merely because they indicate status but also because they are embedded in economic and social life. A person without a car in 1900 was average; a person without a mobile phone in 2000, fairly standard. But without those things today, most people have a hard time staying employed or conducting a normal social life.
The poor are still poor because, despite their material goods, they still lack public dignity and control over the most important facts of their lives, such as where they live and how their children are educated. By those measures, the War on Poverty is far from over; indeed, it has hardly begun.
Yet the poverty line and much of the poverty debate continue to focus on material resources. The left rails about “food insecurity,” a measure that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone in the household went hungry. The right retorts that obesity is a bigger problem for the poor than hunger. These debates are a distraction from the real war on poverty, which must be fought against residential segregation, inadequate schools and the other markers of modern disadvantage. Until those battles are won, nobody will be in any position to declare victory.
Megan McArdle is a columnist with The Washington Post.