Before the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the city of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities in 2005 refocused the nation’s attention on the relationship between race and poverty. The people most adversely affected by this catastrophic event and its aftermath were overwhelmingly black and overwhelmingly poor. A common reaction to the media’s dramatic images of disaster victims in New Orleans, especially those seeking refuge in the attics of flooded homes, building rooftops, and the Superdome, was “I didn’t think the problem of race and poverty was still with us.”
As this entry shows, the attention to poverty and race brought about by Katrina is yet another phase in the race/poverty discourse in the United States, which has shifted sharply several times over the past few decades. In this entry, we will show how the face of poverty in the United States has changed over the past 40 or 50 years in response to antipoverty policies and structural changes in the economy.
I. Background and Context
II. The Poor and Efforts to Alleviate Poverty in the United States
III. Uneven Impacts of Past Poverty Alleviation Programs
Background and Context
Concerns about America’s poor ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th century. After receiving limited public policy attention prior to World War II, concern about the United States’ poverty problem abated after the war, and it did not become a priority policy issue again until the early 1960s.
Since the early 1960s, public policies implemented to alleviate poverty in the United States have ranged from the very liberal to the extremely conservative. Reflecting this state of affairs, the absolute and relative size of the poor population in the United States has fluctuated widely over the last 50 years.
The Poor and Efforts to Alleviate Poverty in the United States
Political attitudes toward America’s poor were decidedly liberal during the 1960s. In both political and policy circles, the prevailing view was that poverty was a structural problem characterized by racial discrimination and systematic exclusion of racial minorities in all walks of American life. This view led to the first major federal effort after World War II to address the country’s poverty problem: the war on poverty and the Great Society programs launched by President Lyndon Johnson.
Before the war on poverty, the U.S. poor totaled 39.8 million, 22.4 percent of the nation’s population in 1960. As a consequence of the Johnson administration’s antipoverty programs, which sought to redress the systematic inequities in U.S. society, the incidence of poverty was reduced by 36 percent during the 1960s. By 1970, only 25.4 million people (12.6 percent of the U.S. population) were poor.
But the war on poverty was short lived, as the Vietnam War assumed center stage during the early 1970s, resulting in a redirection of federal resources away from efforts to eradicate poverty. Moreover, with the election of President Richard Nixon, attitudes toward the poor became more conservative: the prevailing view held that poverty was a function of human or personal failings rather than a structural problem. As a consequence of these developments, the assault on America’s poverty problem was substantially curtailed just as economic stagflation and a deep recession occurred, resulting in an increase—absolute and relative—in the size of the nation’s poor population. During the 1970s, the U.S. poor grew from 25.4 million to 29.2 million, increasing from 12.6 percent to 13 percent of the total population by 1980.
Political attitudes toward the poor became even more conservative during the 1980s. Instead of acknowledging the short duration of the nation’s official war on poverty, both the Reagan and Bush administrations of the 1980s argued that the nation’s persistent poverty problem, especially the resurgence of growth during the 1970s, was a product of 1960s-era liberal policymaking. In their eyes, the federal welfare program—Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), in particular—was the culprit.
AFDC, they contended, destroyed the work ethic, bred long-term dependency, and encouraged a range of other antisocial or dysfunctional behaviors, including out-of-wedlock pregnancy, family disruption, and even illegal activities revolving around gangs and drug dealing, especially in the nation’s cities. The problem, they asserted, was not material poverty but, rather, moral poverty. They also believed that the antipoverty programs of Johnson’s Great Society slowed the economy by sapping taxes from productive investments that would otherwise spur economic growth and job creation.
To combat these problems and behaviors, the Reagan and Bush administrations waged what some characterize as a war on the poor, drastically cutting federal spending on social programs (especially AFDC) and eliminating government regulations viewed as crippling industry and private enterprise. These policies, especially efforts to create a deregulated business environment, drastically altered the structure of economic opportunity for the nation’s most disadvantaged citizens, in particular the large number of African Americans concentrated in urban ghettoes.
Specifically, the business policies accelerated the decline of highly unionized, high-wage, central-city manufacturing employment—a process referred to as deindustrialization— and accelerated capital flight away from U.S. cities and toward Third World countries—a process referred to as employment deconcentration—leaving behind a substantial population that became the jobless or underemployed poor. Partly as a function of these business policy impacts and partly as a consequence of cuts in a host of 1960s-era social programs, the poor population continued to increase during the 1980s, reaching 33.5 million, or 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population, by 1990.
During the 1990s, the poor population declined for the first time since the 1960s— from 33.5 million (13.5 percent of the total population) at the beginning of the decade to 31.5 million (11.3 percent of the total population) at the end. It should be noted that this decline occurred despite prognostications that poverty would increase substantially after the enactment of the most sweeping welfare reform legislation since the war on poverty was launched in the mid-1960s—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA).
In an effort to respond to past criticisms of the social welfare system, especially those advanced by conservative social policy analysts, the 1996 PRWORA sought to reduce dependency by imposing time limits on welfare. Reflecting liberal views about the underlying causes of poverty, it also provided a range of supports designed to encourage and facilitate former welfare recipients’ transition to work. Thus, in contrast to the liberal policies of the 1960s and the conservative policies of the 1980s, this legislation was decidedly centrist, as it represented a “carrots” (work incentives and supports) and “sticks” (welfare time limits) approach to poverty alleviation in the United States.
The successful implementation of the reforms inherent in the 1996 legislation was aided tremendously by the decade-long economic boom, which created a large number of entry-level jobs that matched the skill levels of the long-term welfare-dependent population. But the economic crises of 2008–2009 adversely affected the federal government’s effort to move former welfare recipients to the world of work as well as the structure of employment opportunities in the U.S. economy more generally, especially for low-skilled workers. Due to the massive layoff s spawned by corporate scandals and business failures, the U.S. poor population increased by 8.2 million after 2000, bringing the total to 39.8 million in 2008. As a result of this absolute increase, the share of the U.S. population that was poor increased from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 13.2 percent in 2008. (More recent data, although incomplete, looks just as bad or worse.)
Uneven Impacts of Past Poverty Alleviation Programs
Focusing on the period from 1970 to the present (for which there are more complete data available), and notwithstanding the fluctuations in the absolute and relative size of the U.S. poverty population over the last 40 years, there were, according to the Census Bureau, 14.6 million more poor people in the United States in 2008 than there were in 1970 (or about the same number of poor as in 1960). It should be noted that this absolute increase occurred in the midst of a 49 percent increase in the total U.S. population— from 202.2 million in 1970 to 301 million in 2008. However, compared to the period 1960 to 2000, where there was an even greater relative increase in population (55 percent) together with an absolute decrease in the number of poor people (8.3 million), the more recent period (1970 to 2008) looks remarkable for its lackluster results. One could perhaps point to the 1960s social programs at the one end of the scale and the layoff s of the 2000s (capped by the start of the economic crisis of 2008–2009) at the other end, to explain part of this striking difference.
As should be evident from these data, past efforts to alleviate poverty in the United States have been unevenly distributed, resulting in a significant shift in both the demographic composition and the geographical distribution of the poor. Figure 1 provides insight into where significant inroads have been made in the alleviation of poverty and where major challenges remain. Figures 2 through 5 illustrate how the face of poverty in the United States has changed over the last 40 years as a consequence of the uneven distributional impacts of past poverty alleviation efforts.
Between 1970 and 2008, as Figure 1 shows, there was a 14.9 percent decrease in the rate of poverty among senior citizens, an 8.8 percent decrease in the rate of poverty among blacks (as many moved into the middle class), a 6.7 percent decrease in the poverty rate among women-headed households, a 4.2 percent decrease in the poverty rate in the South (as employment increased), and a 1.8 percent decrease in the poverty rate in nonmetropolitan areas. On the other hand, there were increases in the poverty rate in many categories: 3.9 percent among children and youth; 3.5 percent in central cities; 2.7 percent among adults aged 18 to 64; 2.7 percent in noncentral cities; between 2.4 and 2.2 percent in the Midwest, the West, and the Northeast; and smaller but notable increases among whites (1.1 percent), men (0.9 percent), families (0.6 percent), Hispanics (0.5 percent), and women (0.4 percent).
Figure 1. The Changing Profile of the U.S. Poor (1970–2008) (U.S. Census Bureau. “Poverty.” Historical Tables).
Undergirding these statistics are five noteworthy shifts that have transformed the face of poverty in the United States over the last 40 years: shifts in regional distribution and place of residence as well as changes in the age, family status, and racial and ethnic composition of the nation’s poor.
As Figure 2 shows, the decline of the South’s share of the U.S. poor and the concomitant increase in the West’s share is one of these shifts—even while the South remains the region with the highest number of poor. In the early 1970s, close to half of the nation’s poor was concentrated in the South. Close to 40 years later, the South’s share of U.S. poverty had decreased to 40 percent. Paralleling the South’s declining share, the West’s share of the nation’s poor increased from 16 percent in 1971 to 24 percent in 2003. As shown below, this shift is due in part to the influx of poor Hispanic immigrants into the United States over the last three decades, most of whom settled—at least initially— in the Southwest. Throughout this period, as Figure 2 shows, the Northeast’s and Midwest’s shares of the nation’s poor remained relatively stable—in the 17–20 percent range in both regions.
Figure 2. Distribution of U.S. Poor by Region (1971–2008) (U.S. Census Bureau. “Poverty.” Historical Tables).
Changes in the types of communities in which the nation’s poor reside constitute a second major shift. As the United States has become more urbanized, so has the poor population. In the early 1970s, as Figure 3 shows, almost half of the nation’s poor resided in rural areas. By 2008, only 17 percent resided in such areas. Today, a majority of the U.S. poor lives in metropolitan areas, with significant concentrations both inside and outside central cities.
Figure 3. Distribution of U.S. Poor by Place of Residence (1970–2008) (U.S. Census Bureau. “Poverty.” Historical Tables).
Over the past 40 years, the age composition of the poor also has changed; this constitutes the third major shift. In general, the shares of the U.S. poor under age 18 and over age 65 decreased, while the number of those in the 18–64 age group increased sharply (see Figure 4). Historically, poverty among working-age individuals (ages 18 to 64) was due primarily to detachment from the labor market (i.e., jobless poverty). However, as the U.S. economy was structurally transformed from goods production to service provision, a growing contingent of the labor force became what is referred to as the working poor. Due to skills deficits or other types of constraints (e.g., lack of affordable child care, inferior public school education, lack of economic opportunities in close proximity, and employer bias), these individuals have been relegated to part-time jobs they do not want—mainly in the service sector of the U.S. economy—or full-time jobs that pay below poverty-level wages, provide few (if any) benefits, and offer no prospects for career mobility. Many of these problems were exacerbated by the recent financial crisis, as figures for the period after 2008 (not published by the Census Bureau at the time of this writing) are likely to show.
Figure 4. Distribution of U.S. Poor by Age (1970–2007) (U.S. Census Bureau. “Poverty.” Historical Tables).
The family context in which the poor find themselves is the fourth major shift. Poverty among all families increased slightly—by 0.6 percent—over the last four decades. As can be seen in Figure 5, moreover, poverty has become less concentrated in married-couple families and more concentrated in women-headed families, which accounted for about half of all families in poverty in 2008. This shift has been termed the feminization of poverty. Even so, as noted above in the discussion of Figure 1, some progress has been made since 1970 in reducing (by 6.7 percent) the poverty rate within this demographic group. In other words, as the number of women-headed households continues to increase and as poverty affecting families in general remains at a relatively high level, the prospect of experiencing poverty remains an issue for these families; and yet, as a group or class, women-headed households have witnessed a decline (6.7 percent) since 1970 in the rate at which they experience poverty.
Change in the racial and ethnic composition of the nation’s poor population is the fifth major shift. Heightened immigration—legal and illegal—from Mexico, other parts of Latin America, and Southeast Asia is principally responsible for the increasing diversity of the nation’s poor. The white share of the U.S. poor declined from nearly 70 percent in 1970 to 42.7 percent in 2008. During this period, the African American share declined from 30 percent to 24 percent. These declines have been offset by increases among the immigrant groups, especially Hispanics. Since the early 1970s, the Hispanic share of the nation’s poor has grown from 10 percent to 27.6 percent.
Figure 5. Distribution of U.S. Poor by Family Type (1970–2008) (U.S. Census Bureau. “Poverty.” Historical Tables).
A range of public policies spanning the political ideological spectrum have been implemented to address the poverty problem in the United States since the 1970s. Whether because of these policies or their failure or because of fundamental shifts in the U.S. economy, more Americans live in poverty today than 40 years ago, in both proportional terms (12.6 percent to 13.2 percent) and absolute terms (from 25.3 million to 39.8 million).
While many of the social and economic conditions associated with poverty in the 1970s persist, immigration, combined with regional and global shifts in job growth, changed the face of poverty in the United States in several ways.
- Poverty in the South declined significantly, but there were increases in the other regions as the economy adjusted to globalization.
- Rural poverty declined, while urban poverty grew.
- Poverty among senior citizens and blacks declined, while poverty among both working-age adults and children and youth increased significantly. Today, the working poor account for a higher proportion of Americans in poverty than the jobless poor, and children and youth have suffered the effects along with their parents or guardians.
- Poverty decreased in women-headed, single-parent households even as the number of these families grew, especially among African Americans. At the same time, poverty in families in general increased slightly.
Given the current economic downturn, this picture is likely to get worse before it gets better. If and when the situation does turn around, or perhaps even before that, policymakers would do well to revisit the issue of poverty in the United States and decide what can be done to build on progress that has been achieved to date while also attending to those areas that remain challenges.
James H. Johnson Jr. and Michael Shally-Jensen
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