THE BLOG

A Global Perspective on America's "War on Poverty" Anniversary

02/12/2014 11:33 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2014

Last month's 50th anniversary of President Johnson's "War on Poverty" elicited considerable introspection throughout the country. A half century later, we are collectively asking ourselves whether we can objectively declare victory, or perhaps more to the point, what victory actually looks like.

From a quantitative standpoint, the numbers show progress. Adjusted for historical inflation, the U.S. poverty rate between 1967 and 2012 declined by 10 percent -- from 26 to 16 percent -- according to Columbia University researchers. The most significant drop was among seniors. Fifty years ago, more than one third of the nation's elderly was living in poverty; today, fewer than one in 10 is.

Children, on the other hand -- with no political leverage of their own -- have not fared as well. Last year, child poverty in America reached record levels: 16.7 million children live in what the government terms "food insecure" households. In other words, they go hungry more often than not.

And so, despite advances, the "War on Poverty" still has battles to win, hills to take.

Meanwhile, a parallel war -- similar in some ways but different in many more -- has been taking place outside our borders. This confrontation against global poverty may hold lessons for us at home, especially when you consider the dramatic progress that has been made around the world. Since 1976, there has been an 80 percent decline in the world's abject poverty rate. Even when you exclude China, whose market reforms have invigorated its economy over the last four decades, the progress around the world has been notable and substantial.

There are a number of factors that have contributed to this upward movement. To start, the global economy has improved generally over time, giving developed nations a greater capacity and willingness to commit official development assistance. Historically, external private investment also runs higher during periods of prosperity. And developing countries themselves have been able to leverage the benefits of a strong global economy to raise living standards internally.

The outbreak of democracy, and the peace and stability that so often go with it, among many nations over the past 30 years has had a significant influence as well. Democracies hold their elected leaders accountable, not only to improve the quality of life for its citizens but to eliminate corruption and reduce inefficiency. In countries as diverse as Ecuador, Liberia and the Philippines, democratically elected leaders are harnessing internal resources and partnering with foreign investors and NGOs to implement a variety of poverty-reducing programs.

ChildFund International has served on the front lines of that work, and what we have learned over time is that targeted investment -- investments in healthcare, education and job creation -- are far more effective than infusions of cash. With the exception of monetary aid following a natural disaster, which many developed nations are particularly susceptible to, what is needed most, and what works best, is a strategy that eradicates poverty by fueling broad social improvements. Enhancing the quality of healthcare and enriching education at all levels lay the foundation for greater opportunity.

Our focus must be and is on helping people work their way out of poverty. For many donors, the strategy is counterintuitive. Instinct may nudge us toward simply giving things to people in need. But our experience at ChildFund and among other NGOs tells us otherwise. The most effective way to maintain progress over time is to educate children so that they have their own set of skills, skills that can ensure a sustainable tomorrow, provide economic security and create a future better than their parents' yesterdays.

In reflecting on the domestic "War on Poverty," what strikes me is the apparent scattershot approach that has been taken over time, a safety net woven from disparate pieces. Contrast the execution of our domestic "War on Poverty" to the more focused strategy undertaken by world leaders in 2000 at the United Nations Millennium Summit. At that time, governments around the world agreed to tackle a set of eight major goals with the overarching objective of cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015. These so called millennium development goals provided a framework for action, a baseline for measurement and specific statistical targets.

With less than a year to go, many of the goals already have been achieved -- halving the number of people living in extreme poverty; increasing the number of people with access to clean water by more than 2 billion; eliminating gender disparity in both primary and secondary education; reducing malaria death rates by more than 25 percent; and closing in on cutting the number of people suffering from hunger by half.

The progress is laudable, but it's important to put this comparative success in perspective. There are significant differences between the domestic and global wars on poverty. The respective scale of the poverty that exists here and in other parts of the world is dramatic. In the United States, a family of four is considered to fall under the poverty line if its income is $23,550 or below. Admittedly, living within that income is a challenge here at home. But compare it to the $2 a day that some 2.4 billion people -- about one in three people on the planet -- live on.

This distinction provides a telling perspective. Progress in other parts of the globe is due in large part to not only the concentrated focus of the world's collective efforts, but it's important to remember that the depths of poverty in many parts of the world have been and still are far lower than anything we have here at home. Countless children around the world begin their lives malnourished, grow up on dirt floors and have little access to a formal education. Consider this: No child dies of thirst in the U.S., and yet, children in developing countries still walk great distances to carry water home to their families, and when the droughts come, many do not make it.

There are different battlefields in the "War on Poverty," both here and overseas. But as our nation reflects on how far we've come in our own "War on Poverty" at home, there is little doubt that poverty around the world is in retreat.