Few would dispute that America’s war on poverty—declared 50 years ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson in his State of the Union Address—is still a long way from over. With 15 percent of Americans today living under the poverty line, only 4 percentage points fewer than when Johnson launched his campaign, many might even agree with Ronald Reagan’s stinging assessment that “poverty won.”
The stricter nonpartisan truth is that no war on poverty could have been won any more than it could have been lost. This is not to deny that many of Johnson’s Great Society programs—from expanded food stamps and Medicaid to Head Start and job-promoting tax cuts—did much to improve the quality of poor Americans’ lives. They even made many of those lives possible, and that is no small accomplishment.