In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” beginning an expansive campaign to alleviate the effects of poverty. As part of his Great Society agenda, Johnson rolled out or strengthened a raft of programs that have become part of the fabric of government as we know it, including food stamps (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid, and Social Security. Thanks to a historic bipartisan policymaking effort, the sweeping anti-poverty measures attempted to remedy a situation in which almost one in five American was living in poverty.
Earlier this year, the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s call to arms sparked a robust discussion about progress toward eradicating poverty. Poverty among the elderly has declined significantly, from more than 35% in the 1960s to 9% today, and some academics suggest that despite the complexity of understanding its programs and processes, the War on Poverty halted further impoverishment, addressed racial discrimination, and promoted opportunity with programs like Head Start.
But much like the martial rhetoric of other policy initiatives, Johnson’s promises to “conquer poverty” remain unfulfilled. The consensus of many observers is that the War on Poverty remains a mixed bag, with decreases in infant mortality and malnutrition weighed against persistent inequality and poverty. Today, 46.5 million Americans, or about 15% of the population, remain in poverty, with some estimating that the actual number is much larger. At 22%, the poverty rate for children is still shockingly high, and the continued growth of single-family families may be an important factor in poverty today, as well as low wages that have not matched productivity gains amid rising wealth and income inequality.
On Thursday, March 27, and Friday, March 28, the Innovating to End Urban Poverty Conference offers an opportunity to assess the role of poverty in society today as well as present ways in which innovative solutions can be implemented to help more Americans build bridges toward greater opportunity. Part of a collaboration between the Bedrosian Center and the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, the conference will field a unique multidisciplinary mix of well-respected scholars and practitioners from grassroots, nonprofit, and local government levels in conversation to understand the failures of past policies and what might be effective ways to decrease poverty in 21st century America. Five panels taking place on the first day will examine how human capital, other supports, the role of people, household order and structure, and the role of place all impact poverty, and two concluding panels organized around the themes of rapporteur and foundations will bring the conference to a close. A full schedule of all panels and participants can be found on the conference website.