Fifty years after President Johnson started a $20 trillion taxpayer-funded war on poverty, the overall percentage of impoverished people in the U.S. has declined only slightly and the poor have lost ground under President Obama.
Aides said Mr. Obama doesn’t plan to commemorate the anniversary Wednesday of Johnson’s speech in 1964, which gave rise to Medicaid, Head Start and a broad range of other federal anti-poverty programs. The president’s only public event Tuesday was a plea for Congress to approve extended benefits for the long-term unemployed, another reminder of the persistent economic troubles during Mr. Obama’s five years in office.
“What I think the American people are really looking for in 2014 is just a little bit of stability,” Mr. Obama said.
Although the president often rails against income inequality in America, his policies have had little impact overall on poverty. A record 47 million Americans receive food stamps, about 13 million more than when he took office.
The poverty rate has stood at 15 percent for three consecutive years, the first time that has happened since the mid-1960s. The poverty rate in 1965 was 17.3 percent; it was 12.5 percent in 2007, before the Great Recession.
About 50 million Americans live below the poverty line, which the federal government defined in 2012 as an annual income of $23,492 for a family of four.
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President Obama’s anti-poverty efforts “are basically to give more people more free stuff,” said Robert Rector, a specialist on welfare and poverty at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“That’s exactly the opposite of what Johnson said,” Mr. Rector said. “Johnson’s goal was to make people prosperous and self-sufficient.”
The president’s advisers defend his policies by saying they rescued the nation from the deep recession in 2009, saved the auto industry and reduced the jobless rate to 7 percent from a high of 10 percent four years ago.
Gene Sperling, the president’s top economic adviser, said Mr. Obama has pulled as many as 9 million people out of poverty with policies such as extending the earned income tax credit for parents with three or more children and reducing the “marriage penalty.”
“There are things that this president has done that have made a big difference,” Mr. Sperling said Monday.
The White House again is pushing for an increase in the federal minimum wage, this time advocating a Senate bill that would raise the hourly rate to $10.10 from its current $7.25. Mr. Sperling said that action would lift another 6.8 million workers out of poverty.
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“It would make them less dependent on government programs. It would not add to the deficit one penny, but it would reward work and reduce poverty,” he said.
The president is expected to use his State of the Union address Jan. 20 to pressure Congress to raise the minimum wage. He made the same pitch a year ago.
Democrats are advocating issues such as unemployment benefits and the minimum wage especially hard this year as the class-warfare rhetoric heats up to frame the congressional midterm elections. House Republican leaders oppose increasing the minimum wage and want unemployment benefits to be paid with savings elsewhere in the budget. Mr. Obama is insisting that the benefits be extended without offsets.
The president last month declared the widening gap between rich and poor as “the defining challenge of our time,” and Democratic candidates are expected to pick up that theme on the campaign trail rather than debate deficits and the complications of Obamacare.
In spite of the administration’s anti-poverty efforts, however, the government reported this week that poverty by some measures has been worse under Mr. Obama than it was under President George W. Bush. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 31.6 percent of Americans were in poverty for at least two months from 2009 to 2011, a 4.5 percentage point increase over the pre-recession period of 2005 to 2007.
Of the 37.6 million people who were poor at the beginning of 2009, 26.4 percent remained in poverty throughout the next 34 months, the report said. Another 12.6 million people escaped poverty during that time, but 13.5 million more fell into poverty.
Mr. Rector said the war on poverty has been a failure when measured by the overall amount of money spent and poverty rates that haven’t changed significantly since Johnson gave his speech.
“We’ve spent $20.7 trillion on means-tested aid since that time, and the poverty rate is pretty much exactly where it was in the mid-1960s,” he said.
The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in a report that some trends have helped reduce poverty since the 1960s, including more Americans completing high school and more women working outside the home. But the group said other factors have contributed to persistent poverty, including a tripling in the number of households led by single parents.
Mr. Rector said too many government anti-poverty programs still discourage marriage, factoring into statistics that show more than four in 10 children are born to unmarried parents.
“When the war on poverty started, about 6 percent of children were born outside of marriage,” he said. “Today that’s 42 percent — catastrophe.”