Winning the War: Poverty from the Great Society to the Great Recession
62 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2013 Last revised: 20 Aug 2014
Date Written: January 2013
This paper considers the long-run patterns of poverty in the United States from the early 1960s to 2010. Our results contradict previous studies that have argued that poverty has shown little improvement over time or that anti-poverty efforts have been ineffective. We find that moving from traditional income-based measures of poverty to a consumption-based measure (which we argue is superior on both theoretical and practical grounds) and, crucially, adjusting for bias in price indices leads to the conclusion that the poverty rate declined by 26.4 percentage points between 1960 and 2010, with 8.5 percentage points of that decline occurring since 1980. Consumption poverty suggests considerably greater improvement than income poverty for single parent families and the aged, but relatively less improvement for married parent families. Our analyses of the proximate causes of these patterns indicate that changes in tax policy explain a substantial part of the decline in poverty and that social security has been important, but that the roles of other transfer programs have been small. Changes in education have contributed to the decline, while other demographic trends have played a small role. Measurement error in income is likely to explain some of the most noticeable differences between changes in income and consumption poverty, but saving and dissaving do not appear to play a large role for most demographic groups.
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