01/10/2014 05:08 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2014

The New Debate About Poverty

This week, the United States marked 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson declared War on Poverty. Many politicians and media are asking whether past efforts to reduce poverty have been successful. Even more importantly, some leaders in both parties are proposing fresh strategies to tackle poverty in America.

Our country cut the poverty rate in half during the 1960s and early '70s. This was partly because the economy was strong and unemployment low, but partly also because of the War on Poverty and bipartisan concern about poverty. During the Johnson administration, we launched Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and Pell Grants, and we expanded Social Security. President Nixon ended some War on Poverty programs, notably those that helped low-income people gain power through legal aid and community organizations. But Nixon hosted a White House conference on food, nutrition and health, from which the modern food stamp and WIC nutrition programs emerged.

By the mid-70s, poverty was no longer a political priority. No U.S. president since Johnson has made it one of his top five priorities. We came to tolerate higher unemployment, and the average wage of unskilled workers is now a third lower than it was in 1970. The official poverty rate in 2008 was higher than it was in 1973.

Poverty surged after the financial crisis of 2008, but federal anti-poverty programs have moderated the hardship. While the official measure of poverty (which includes only earned income) continued to increase after 2008, the official measure of food insecurity (which takes into account whatever assistance families receive) held steady.

This is because our governments' major anti-poverty programs expand automatically when need increases. Also, the House Republican drive to reduce government spending has been largely diverted from cuts to anti-poverty programs. Congress and the president have cut $2.5 trillion from deficits over the last three years, but the cuts to poverty-focused programs have so far come to only about two percent of what the House's budgets have proposed.

Most Republicans are still pushing for cuts in programs that help low-income people, such as unemployment insurance and food stamps. And Democrats still want to be known mainly as the party of the middle-class. They often seem wary about even using the word "poverty," even though 46 million of us Americans live in poverty.

So I thank God that leaders of both parties are now starting to talk about poverty again. President Obama outlined policies to encourage equity and economic mobility in early December and promised to make this the main thrust of his remaining years in office. Just this week, the president announced five new "promise zones" and spoke out about unemployment insurance.

Some Republicans are also focusing on the problem of poverty and possible solutions. In a speech this week, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) outlined his strategies to reduce poverty. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) will make a similar speech next week. Both Republicans are potential candidates for president. They are also both leaders for immigration reform -- which would allow many people to climb out of poverty. Rubio proposed shifting the management of anti-poverty programs to the states, but did not talk about cutting the funding for anti-poverty efforts.

This economy has driven many people into economic hardship, and voters who are poor or near-poor came out in large numbers in the last election. This new political reality is encouraging leaders of both parties to address the issue of poverty as we enter a new election year.

Just before Thanksgiving, Bread for the World released our own thinking about how to end hunger in America. A strong social safety net and improvements in educational opportunity remain important. But strides against poverty over the next few years will depend heavily on reducing unemployment. It helps that Congress is now steering clear of budget brinksmanship and is moderating the sequester. So does the Federal Reserve Board's continuing focus on employment.

Bread for the World's strategy to end hunger also calls for policies to improve the quality of jobs, starting with an increase in the minimum wage. We have also become convinced that too many men, especially African-Americans and Latinos, are unfairly caught up in the legal system in ways that permanently block them from good jobs.

Bread for the World's members and churches across the country welcome the new debate about poverty in America, and we pray that leaders of the two parties will work together to end hunger and extreme poverty in our time.

The world as a whole is making dramatic progress against hunger and poverty. If countries as diverse as Brazil, Banglades, and Great Britain can make dramatic progress against poverty, we can also do it here in the U.S.A.


Rev. David Beckmann is the president of Bread for the World, a collective Christian voice urging lawmakers to end hunger at home and abroad. He is also an economist, Lutheran minister, 2010 World Food Prize Laureate, and author of 'Exodus from Hunger.'