Despite Debates Over Government, Poverty Fell During 20th Century


While debates continue to surface over the government’s role in the reduction of poverty, the nation’s poverty picture is much different now than it was decades ago. The implementation of many federal programs over the years has significantly reduced the number of people in poverty, helping them gain access to health care, nutritious food, and other basic needs. To learn more, review the below infographic.

poverty during the 20th century infographic image

Text: Poverty Fell During 20th Century

The Statistics Since 1959

According to the US Census Bureau, the percentage of Americans living in poverty for the past few decades has been volatile. The rate was as high as 27.3% in 1959 but this fell over the next decade thanks to a booming economy and various government programs. By 1970, it was almost cut in half to just 15.1%. It was certainly a massive accomplishment. However, it began to rise again because of an oil crisis until it reached 20.6% in 1990. Another economic boom helped reduce this to 16.2% by the year 2000. The recent recession pushed things back up to 21.1% by 2014.

While the poverty rate has been unstable, personal income marched to a steady increase. The average American now earns almost twice as much as workers did over forty years ago. In 1970, the figure was pegged at $17,292. It climbed to $21,309 in 1980 and went up further to $25,284 in 1990. By 2000, the typical worker could look forward to $30,719 in annual earnings. This is a substantial rise over time that can only be good for the millions of households all over the country. On the other hand, it should be noted that personal income seems to have reached a plateau with the 2014 average being $30,176.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Laws and Programs

President Franklin D. Roosevelt came into office at a difficult time. The country was reeling from The Great Depression and no end was insight. Millions were struggling just to put food on the table. His government acted quickly by establishing fundamental laws that would fight poverty. The Social Security Act was passed in 1935. It gave benefits for vulnerable Americans including the unemployed and those over the age of 65. Single mothers were also provided with financial relief so that they could raise their families properly.

The Public Works Administration was created to lead in $4 billion worth of construction projects. PWA helped to erect countless educational buildings, sewage disposal plants, public health facilities, court houses, city halls, bridges, roads and subways. The economy got moving again because of this stimulus and people could enjoy better facilities than ever before.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was a relief program that operated from 1933 up to 1942. It provided millions of unskilled manual labor jobs for unemployed and unmarried men between the ages of 17 and 28. There were over 4,500 camps nationwide which served 2.5 million men. They were involved in projects meant to conserve the nation’s natural resources.

Lyndon Johnson’s Efforts to Combat the Problem

President Johnson’s programs against poverty are also notable. He occupied the White House from late 1963 to early 1969. He introduced the Social Security Amendments Act of 1965, which expanded benefits to the public. Most notably, it was responsible for creating Medicare and Medicaid. The programs help millions of Americans deal with their health issues. It was also during his terms that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed. This provided grants for school districts that serve low-income families. It gave funding for special education centers, scholarships for financially challenged college students, and federal grants for state educational agencies.

Another key piece of legislation from this era is the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. This created work-training and work-study programs. Head Start, Job Corps, and adult education programs can all trace their roots to this law. There were also several initiatives to eradicate poverty in the rural areas. He also signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964. It provided enhanced levels of nutrition for low income families who could not afford decent meals otherwise. Participation rose tremendously from over the following decade. It started out with 561,261 participants in 1965. By 1974, the number had risen to 15 million.

Declines Related to Government Assistance Programs

It cannot be denied that these government programs had a massive effect on the population. As a whole, the poverty rate dropped from 27.3% in 1959 to 21.1% in 2014. There may have been ups and downs in between but the net result has been a reduction. If we focus on those over the age of 64, then we can see that the decline is even more dramatic. It started at 35.2% but is now just 10%. Social security is working for senior citizens, along with other initiatives to ease the retirement years. For children in families, the figure decreased from 26.9% to 20.7%.

These numbers had a real effect on American lives. About 22.1 million citizens were lifted out of poverty thanks to social security in 2012. A further 10.3 million were lifted above the poverty line because of the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program or SNAP in the same year. Due to Medicaid, patients are 15.3% less likely to have any out of pocket expenses. The transition to Medicare at age 65 reduces the likelihood of health-related financial issues. For example, problems paying medical bills drop by 35%. Seniors are much less likely to borrow money just to cover these expenses.

Refined Estimates Paint a Good Picture

The US Census calculates the official poverty rate by including income and government cash transfers. The latter includes unemployment compensation and social security. It does not take into account certain non-cash benefits like refunds, tax credits, and food stamps that all serve to ease daily life for millions of households. If these were included in the computations, then the poverty level in 2012 would be reduced to just 13.8%. This means that up to 48 million people were lifted out of poverty because of these programs. The figure includes 12 million children who are now able to go to school and eat healthy every day.

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