SWM-017: How to Assess Progress in the War on Poverty, with Chris Wimer

August 11, 2015 @ 8:53 pm

“Let this session of Congress be known…as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.” —President Lyndon B. Johnson, State of the Union (January 8, 1964)

Social Work Matters podcast coverThis past semester at Columbia University, the CATO Institute held a conference to assess the progress made in the 50 years since President Johnson delivered these bold words, which led to a host of federal programs including Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and Food Stamps.

CATO Institute, a think tank devoted to individual liberty and limited government, invited conference participants to answer the question:

We’ve spent nearly $19 trillion fighting poverty, but what have we really accomplished?

One of the participants was Dr. Christopher Wimer, a research scientist who co-directs our School’s new Center on Poverty and Social Policy, and works with some of our School’s leading policy professors—in particular, Professors Irv Garfinkel, Jane Waldfogel and Neeraj Kaushal—on conducting poverty research within the Columbia Population Research Center (CPRC),

Dr. Wimer used the conference as an opportunity to present the key findings of a groundbreaking research conducted by the CPRC team at the end of 2013.

The team took the more up-to-date standard for measuring poverty, known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure, and applied it back to 1967. They found that the poverty rate would be much worse today had it not been for the government programs that were ushered in by President Johnson’s War on Poverty.

“There is still poverty in this country, it is still too high, but we do need to acknowledge that some of our government programs and policies are making lives better for people,” as Dr. Wimer puts it in this podcast interview.

Not everyone, of course, is as sanguine as he is about the government playing such an activist role in alleviating living conditions for its poorest citizens. Also in this podcast, Dr. Wimer discusses some of the philosophical differences among poverty analysts, which, too, were on display at the CATO event.


Did President Johnson’s War on Poverty lift people out of destitution, trap them in cycles of dependency, or both?



  • Chris’s summary of the findings of the CPRC study he participated in with Drs. Garfinkel, Kaushal, and Walfogel, which was widely covered by the media and has made a big splash in policy-making circles. [1:35]
  • Explanation of the official poverty measure versus the supplemental poverty measure and why the former does not work to track poverty reduction trends. [3:52]
  • Discussion of the various viewpoints on display on his CATO panel. Michael Tanner, for instance, thinks the government has made poverty less uncomfortable but government spending has shown diminishing returns. [4:36]
  • Confusion over which programs actually belong in a poverty measure. “Not all of these programs are designed to lift someone above or below a poverty line,” Chris says. “Medicaid is a perfect example of that.” [5:04]
  • The example of Food Stamps: “This program does reduce the poverty rate, but the mission is not to lift people above the poverty line but to combat hunger.” [6:15]
  • Why poverty declined dramatically in the first ten years of the War on Poverty: regardless of social programs, it was a “very good economic time,” with low unemployment. [6:45]
  • Why the 1990s was another period when the poverty rate declined: in large part it was due to the expansion in earned income tax credit, the 1996 Welfare Reform Law (which taught that “work pays”) and the strong economy. [7:48]
  • The importance of looking at the 2000s and the Great Recession, when there is a continued flatness instead of an escalating poverty rate—suggesting that government policies are “doing their job.” [8:38]
  • The comparison of long-term trends for children, for whom poverty has fallen by a third (still too high) versus the elderly, who are a different story thanks to social security (although the poverty rate for the elderly is higher under the new measure). [9:32]
  • The importance of distinguishing between programs that make poverty less uncomfortable (safety net) and programs that help people achieve social mobility (stagnant now in this country) and raise their standard of living. [11:34]
  • Final thoughts about how CPRC study numbers have been accepted on both sides of the aisle, though people interpret the findings differently. “We wish there would have been more dramatic reductions in poverty from the market rather than just these programs, but we’re heartened that these programs are doing their job and seem to be reducing poverty over time, more than we thought.” [12:50]