50 Years Later: The War on Poverty Needs an Update

01/09/2014 01:34 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2014

Fifty years ago the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, delivered the State of the Union address that would put poverty reduction at the center of federal policy-making for a generation, declaring the beginning of a "War on Poverty" still being fought to this day.

In his speech, he announced a raft of legislation to combat poverty, declaring that "[T]he war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House."

His assessment that different stakeholders must come together seems especially prescient in the 21st Century when governments, businesses, charities and citizens all have roles to play in tackling the different causes of poverty and hardship.

The trouble is that we still tend to view poverty through a strictly financial lens: The U.S. Department of Commerce "Poverty Reports" compiled from U.S. Census information use the concept of the "poverty line" to measure wellbeing, regardless of other social factors affecting an individual or family. Currently, a single person with annual income below $11,490 is considered to be in poverty according the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There is no law that says someone is "poor" because they are illiterate or homeless, no regulation that says someone is "poor" because they are discriminated against or denied opportunity. But surely it is the hardship that people face that we really care about, not just a measure of income.

LBJ's groundbreaking effort to identify and eradicate the causes of poverty was largely viewed as a success. He signed legislation to provide equal access to education, set up the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and reformed existing welfare projects. Although the War on Poverty has been criticized by economists, the decade following his State of the Union address saw a marked reduction in poverty across the United States, from 19 percent in 1964 to 11.1 percent in 1973. Overall poverty rates have remained between 11 percent and 15.2 percent since the Johnson administration, and last year the proportion of people in poverty still stood at 15 percent -- a marked increase from the 11.3 percent rate at the turn of the millennium.

It's against this backdrop that we need to re-think how we measure poverty, going beyond purely financial measures, and that means we need to find better ways to measure social progress. In other words, we would be well advised to measure to what extent people have their basic needs fulfilled, because how we measure poverty directly affects how we tackle it.

It's for that reason that a new measure has been developed to assess nations' social wellbeing. This new global index -- the Social Progress Index -- specifically and uniquely measures only social progress. It's a sophisticated device which enables us to compare how people in the U.S., for example, are doing versus citizens in Canada, or the UK, or even countries at very different levels of economic strength as typically measured.

This Social Progress Index is the most inclusive and ambitious measure of social progress ever attempted, which asks the questions that really matter to society: Does a country have the capacity to satisfy the basic needs of its people? Does a country have the infrastructure and the instruments to allow its citizens and communities to improve their quality of life? Does a country offer the proper environment for each citizen to have the opportunity to reach his full potential?

Later this year, when the 2014 Index is published, more than 120 countries representing more than 90 percent of people on the planet and nearly all of the world's economic activity will be able to compare performance on social progress. Governments, businesses and civil society will all see where nations fall short and in turn help to frame global, national and local responses to improve human wellbeing. Some will say that all is needed is economic growth, and that in a strong economy, people can pay for what they need. Yet our data shows that while economic growth may well be necessary, it is by no means sufficient to deliver improvements in all the different aspects of social progress. Countries with very similar GDP, for example, can be shown to have very different levels of social progress.

If the United States is serious about doing something to help those who struggle to feed and shelter their families, perhaps it should start by going beyond income as a measure of poverty and learning from overseas as to how to drive social progress.