Did We Lose the War on Poverty?—II

PowerHouse Books
Shadows of residents of a housing project in Red Hook, Brooklyn, 2011; photograph by Jared Wellington, a twelve-year-old workshop participant, from Project Lives: New York Public Housing Residents Photograph Their World. Edited by George Carrano, Chelsea Davis, and Jonathan Fisher, it has just been published by PowerHouse Books.

Although an accurate estimate of how the poverty rate has changed since 1964 would show that we are much closer to achieving President Lyndon Johnson’s original goal of eliminating poverty than most readers of this journal probably believe, it would not tell us how effective specific antipoverty programs have been. The poverty rate could have declined despite the War on Poverty, not because of it. Assessing specific strategies for reducing poverty is the main task that Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger take on in Legacies of the War on Poverty.

When Johnson initiated the War on Poverty, he reportedly said that its political success depended on avoiding handouts. The initial focus was therefore on equalizing opportunity by helping poor children acquire the skills they would need to get steady jobs with at least average pay. I will discuss three of these programs: Head Start for poor preschoolers, Title I funding for public schools with high concentrations of poor children, and financial aid for low-income college students (now known as Pell Grants).

Any program aimed at young people, no matter how successful, inevitably takes a long time to change the poverty rate. Johnson knew that the War on Poverty’s political survival was also likely to require programs that produced more immediate results, so despite his worries about “handouts” he began looking for ways to cut the poverty rate by improving the “safety net” for the poor. I will discuss two of these programs: the big increase in Social Security benefits for the elderly and food stamps.


Head Start

Head Start was primarily a program in which children attended preschool for a year or two, before they went to kindergarten. The Perry Preschool, which opened in the early 1960s in Ypsilanti, Michigan, is probably the most famous preschool in American history. It was a true experiment, selecting its pupils randomly from a pool of poor black three-year-olds and following both those admitted to Perry (the “treatment” group) and those not admitted (the “control” group) for many years.

After two years in the Perry program its graduates did much better on IQ and vocabulary tests than the control group, making Perry an important inspiration for Head Start. As time passed, however, the test score gap between Perry’s treatment and control groups shrank. Eventually the treatment group’s advantage was so small that it could have arisen by chance.

Almost every evaluation of Head Start has also found this same pattern. Children who spend a year in Head Start make more academic progress during that year than similar children who are not enrolled in…

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