The "war on poverty" turns 50 this week. Judging by the official rate, which has only edged down from 19 percent to 15 percent in that time, poverty is winning the war.
In Annie Lowrey's excellent overview, the experts blame low wages. The University of Kentucky's James P. Ziliak and the Obama administration's Jason Furman agree that "the biggest potential gains that could be made on poverty would be in raising market incomes."
There's no question that lower-income wages have fallen behind inflation and productivity growth. But poverty isn't entirely a crisis of McJobs and minimum-wage workers. In fact, the vast majority of people who earn the minimum wage or work cheap jobs on a full-time basis aren't in poverty. In households with at least one fully employed person, the poverty rate just 4.6 percent—two-thirds below the national average. The poverty rate among all full-time workers is even lower, at 2.9 percent—scarcely a fifth of the national figure.
Low wages should be a national concern, as globalization and technology have tag-teamed to devastate the buying power of families who struggle annually to pay the bills and raise their children. But the pesky poverty rate isn't just a measure of low wages. It's sticky high partly because the government's best efforts to get cash to working families have been offset by the fact that Americans are—for a variety of reasons—working less.*
One thing that economists (and Lowrey) point out is that government policies have been more effective at helping families escape poverty than we think. Indeed, one study found the growth of government benefits since 1967 has cut an alternative measure of poverty by 40 percent. But it's more precise to say that Washington has been effective at helping working, two-parent families escape from poverty. The problem is that there are fewer people working and fewer two-parent families. Both the great recession and the surge of single-family households have made it harder for people, today, to work full-time. And families cobbling together a life from part-time gigs, or unemployment, are much more likely to dip into poverty.
It's not realistically (or desirably) in Washington's power to force parents to get married and stay together. But raising employment during a slack economy is precisely within its power. It's just a power Congress chose to stop using.
*Not all poverty programs are for workers. In fact, the government's most successful anti-poverty program is arguably Social Security, at least as measured by the amount it reduces poverty among seniors.