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Winning the War: Poverty from the Great Society to the Great Recession

From: Brookings Papers on Economic Activity
Fall 2012
pp. 133-200 | 10.1353/eca.2012.0019



We consider 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 antipoverty efforts have been ineffective. We find that moving from traditional income-based measures of poverty to a consumption-based measure and, crucially, adjusting for bias in price indexes lead to the conclusion that the poverty rate declined by 26.4 percentage points between 1960 and 2010, 8.5 percentage points of which has occurred since 1980. Our consumption-based measure suggests considerably greater improvement than the income-based measures for single-parent families and the elderly, but relatively less for married-parent families. Changes in tax policy explain a substantial part of the decline in poverty; Social Security has also been important, but other transfer programs have played a small role. Changes in education have also contributed, but other demographic trends have had little impact. Measurement error in income likely explains some of the most noticeable differences between changes in income poverty and in consumption poverty, but saving and dissaving appear to play a modest role for most demographic groups.