January 13, 2014

Who’s poor in America? 50 years into the ‘War on Poverty,’ a data portrait

President Lyndon Baines Johnson visit to Tom Fletcher's home in Kentucky was part of a tour of poverty stricken areas of the U.S. (Photo by Walter Bennett/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images).
President Lyndon Johnson’s visit to Tom Fletcher’s home in Kentucky was part of his tour of poverty stricken areas in the U.S. (Photo by Walter Bennett/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images).

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson used his first State of the Union address to urge “all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.” The War on Poverty, as the set of social programs enacted in 1964-1965 came to  be called, was arguably the most ambitious domestic policy initiative since the Great Depression. But for decades, politicians and social scientists have argued about whether Johnson’s antipoverty programs have lifted people out of destitution, trapped them in cycles of dependency, or both.

Critics note that the official poverty rate, as calculated by the Census Bureau, has fallen only modestly, from 19% in 1964 to 15% in 2012 (the most recent year available). But other analysts, citing shortcomings in the official poverty measure, focus on a supplemental measure (also produced by the Census Bureau) to argue that more progress has been made. A team of researchers from Columbia University, for example, calculated an “anchored” supplemental measure — essentially the 2012 measure carried back through time and adjusted for historical inflation — and found that it fell from about 26% in 1967 to 16% in 2012.

What’s inarguable, though, is that the demographics of America’s poor have shifted over the decades. Here’s a look at what has, and hasn’t, changed, based on the official measure. (Note: The reference years vary depending on data availability.) 

poverty_ageToday, most poor Americans are in their prime working years: In 2012, 57% of poor Americans were ages 18 to 64, versus 41.7% in 1959.

Far fewer elderly are poor: In 1966, 28.5% of Americans ages 65 and over were poor; by 2012 just 9.1% were. There were 1.2 million fewer elderly poor in 2012 than in 1966, despite the doubling of the total elderly population. Researchers generally credit this steep drop to Social Security, particularly the expansion and inflation-indexing of benefits during the 1970s.

But childhood poverty persists: Poverty among children younger than 18 began dropping even before the War on Poverty. From 27.3% in 1959, childhood poverty fell to 23% in 1964 and to 14% by 1969. Since then, however, the childhood poverty rate has risen, fallen and, since the 2007-08 financial crisis, risen again.

Today’s poor families are structured differently: In 1973, the first year for which data are available, more than half (51.4%) of poor families were headed by a married couple; 45.4% were headed by women. In 2012, just over half (50.3%) of poor families were female-headed, while 38.9% were headed by married couples.

poverty_regionsPoverty is more evenly distributed, though still heaviest in the South: In 1969, 45.9% of poor Americans lived in the South, a region that accounted for 31% of the U.S. population at the time. At 17.9%, the South’s poverty rate was far above other regions. In 2012, the South was home to 37.3% of all Americans and 41.1% of the nation’s poor people; though the South’s poverty rate, 16.5%, was the highest among the four Census-designated regions, it was only 3.2 percentage points above the lowest (the Midwest).

Poverty among blacks has fallen sharply: In 1966, two years after Johnson’s speech, four-in-ten (41.8%) of African-Americans were poor; blacks constituted nearly a third (31.1%) of all poor Americans. By 2012, poverty among African-Americans had fallen to 27.2% — still more than double the rate among whites (12.7%, 1.4 percentage points higher than in 1966).

But poverty has risen among Hispanics. Poverty data for Hispanics, who can be of any race, wasn’t collected until 1972. That year, 22.8% lived below the poverty threshold. In 2012, the share of Hispanics in poverty had risen to 25.6%. But the U.S. Hispanic population has quintupled over that time. As a result, more than half of the 22 million-person increase in official poverty between 1972 and 2012 was among Hispanics.

Topics: Poverty

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous1 year ago

    Wait… you’re telling me that handing people everything via social programs is actually making increasing poverty?

  2. Lisa2 years ago

    What I find interesting, is the black poverty has decreased the most but it is that demographic that seems to scream the loudest about poverty. I just find it interesting. I just don’t hear much of a peep or a poop in the media from Hispanics. Just interesting, that’s all. But hasn’t poverty changed? I remember going with my father in the late 60s (he worked for the War on Poverty programs) to visit really poor people who didn’t have running water, toilets, uninsulated homes, uneducated, really, really sad poor people who didn’t have electricity too. They really needed a helping hand and a leg up. The modern poverty home has many more amenities it seems? I am not trying to sound uncompassionate. Things are perfect and it will take time. When in history, other than maybe communism, has there been a 180 degree turnaround in society?

  3. Rose Hill2 years ago

    What is really sad is that there is proverty in this country. Considering how much people get paid to play sports and actors and medical field, the last I can see why they get large sums of money but they bleed the system dry for every dime most of them can get. As for the sports people and actors its their job but getting paid the amount is like they came up with the cure for cancer or how no one will ever have another heart attact or no child will ever have anything wrong with them. Talk about being overpaid for what they do. I don’t think color has anything to do with poverty it comes in NO COLOR it is EVERYWHERE and it has NO AGE.

  4. Jrsmoore2 years ago

    This is what I don’t understand, Baltimore has had liberal Mayors for 68 years except for four years, black mayor, black police chief, black city council, black president, what are they rioting about, they’re in charge. When are liberals going to hold Democrats responsible for their bad policies? They say no jobs, but their leader is getting ready to allow another 4-6 million people in to our country to fight for jobs that they need. Democrats are not your savior, they are your demise.

    1. szcarrol2 years ago

      At least the Democrats don’t hate the people in Baltimore.

      1. dave2 years ago

        The whole town is DEMOCRAT!

    2. CodyCarter2 years ago

      Police brutality from all races of police officers unjustly inflicted on blacks – that is what their are rioting for. Their system is corrupted just like New Orleans. Just because the people are black that’s in charge, doesn’t automatically insure justice for the masses. Yes, we democrats need to take a page from the republican concepts. We need to keep jobs in our country!

    3. Really2 years ago

      The ppl are in charge of what? The system runs itself (Burger King) comes to mind, politicians are puppets for Large Corporations, no matter what the ppl say, corporations have the last say (electoral votes) superceded the (popular vote) Lobbyists vs Voters, Rich vs Poor……… Democracy is dead & Humanity is close behind

  5. TONY2 years ago

    Money alone will solve a few problems,but most it won’t.

    Education without a good moral compass,as history shows,usually ends up in the ditch.
    But an education with a good moral compass has a good fighting chance.

  6. Robert Klahn2 years ago

    Poverty in 1959 was about 22%. It dropped to between 11 and 12% under Clinton. It went down from 1959 on until it hit 12%, then it fluctuated around that number.

    What makes you think the war on poverty started when LBJ announced it? All he did was formalize what started under JFK. The war continued, with varying degrees of enthusiasm until Reagan, who pretty well made peace with poverty.

    That is the fraud of your article, and every one like it. You start with a speech by LBJ and pretend it started there and has continued unabated ever since.

    As to poverty for Hispanics, I noted 20+ years ago that the Hispanic poverty rate was lower than the Black poverty rate. I do suspect much of the increase in Hispanic poverty is due to illegal immigration. Not only are illegal immigrants counted whenever possible, but their presence in this country pushes down the income of those Hispanics on that income borderline before they came.

  7. b—-3 years ago

    How do you site this in APA format

  8. I……….3 years ago

    Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t the definition of poverty less than absolute? If I recall correctly, government changes its definition of poverty (a formula) every year. (Done to determine who gets certain benefits, and who doesn’t)
    By government standards, I live in poverty, but I don’t agree. But then I guess my definition of poverty, (which I do not think I can articulate), doesn’t match governments (which appears to change often).
    To me, poverty is like the Supreme Courts’ decision regarding pornography. They knew it when they saw it, but other wise found it difficult to describe.

  9. Dennis Embry3 years ago

    Thank you for a very concise, factual report to help us understand what has happened to our families and communities.

  10. Yeshi3 years ago

    The Society impoverishing a country or country impoverishing the society?

  11. W. R. Knight4 years ago

    The fact that most poor Americans are in their prime working years bodes ill for their later years. What appears to have happened is that today’s elderly benefited from the good wages and salaries of the last half of the 20th century. As those who are poor in their prime working years reach retirement, they will swell the ranks of the elderly poor.

  12. Al Connelly4 years ago

    I am very curious as to what the poverty level for a family and for an individual is for each geographical segment of the country. People can live reasonably well on lower incomes in the rural south in most of the “southern states” but can’t survive on the IRS estimate of poverty in any of the larger cities such as Dallas, Houston, Austin, Atlanta, Charlotte, etc. and the “survival income” in these cities is still lower than the five NY Burroughs, Chicago, San Francisco, La, etc. The statistical analysis is very suspect in the data presented.

    There is also the issue of “health” in some of the rural populations where health care availability is less than urban areas and we frequently see deaths in the mid and late 60’s in the rural south attributed to lack of good health care or health practices in earlier life of these individuals thereby affecting the statistical analysis of the global population.

    In short, it would be meaningful to make an analysis of the four segments of the US with and without key urban areas data. The problem with this data is the same problem with governments analysis of poverty and the assessment of required benefits, etc.

    I was married and carrying a full 20 hour load at a major southern University in the late 60’s and my wife and I were on the “poverty” list but managed to rent a nice apartment, eat well, have some limited entertainment and annual vacations and owned a reasonably good automobile. I fear that our society has determined that every family or individual should own his/her own home, have all the high tech gadgets, drive the best autos, and be entitled to a cell phone, etc. If you review the true meaning of stability it is the ability to eat healthy meals, have adequate shelter, and medical care. To rise above this condition requires the individual to produce value that will compensate he/she to a level that allows them to obtain more, own a home, own an auto, etc. It is not the role of society to elevate anyone to the level of middle income status.

  13. Darla Kearce4 years ago

    Where do the poor live, rural or urban? Nationally and regionally?

  14. Kurt Teil4 years ago

    What I miss is a definition of Poverty in the ’50s and now, adjusted for inflation.

  15. M. G. Barbour4 years ago

    Can we deduce anything about illegal immigration from the data: “…more than half of the 22 million-person increase in official poverty between 1972 and 2012 was among Hispanics.”?

    1. martina marty3 years ago

      I was wondering about that sentence also…just sort of thrown in there…with no proven statistics.

  16. Ian MacFarlane4 years ago

    The decrease in poverty for the elderly (me included) would also reflect the value of Medicare, which has reduced the effects of medical care on the budgets of the elderly. In fact, I would think that was the major reason for the decline in poverty for the elderly.

  17. josh4 years ago

    very odd to use 1967 as a date to measure changes when, as the graph makes very obvious, most of the change came before 1975 and it seems to have gotten worse from there – very misleading reading of the data

    1. Paul Yarbrough4 years ago

      I’m not sure what your point is.

  18. Evelyn4 years ago

    Oh, and by the way; I was raised in a small town and had ten brothers and sisters. We did not have much, some called us poor as a church mouse; however, our mom and dad taught us responsibility and respect.

  19. unique4 years ago

    Politicians, the 1-2%, and those that are earning more then $500,000 a year
    should be ashamed of themselves for allowing the United States to become
    a third world country.

    The trade agreements that sent jobs overseas should have been signed at a
    much slower pace. This would have given the country time to educate those
    that lost their jobs and prepare them for new positions. Then new trade
    agreements could have been signed and these new workers that lost their
    jobs could be educated for new positions.

    Too much money has been spent on wars. Instead of looking at where we
    can start another war, we need to look at where we can make peace. We
    should not become involved in civil disputes between citizens in any countries.
    These citizens should not be saying, “Where are the Americans.” These citizens
    need to resolve their own disputes.

    Congressional Representatives need to remember, they represent the people
    that voted them in to office. They have to stop being career representatives
    for themselves. We the people need to vote them out after two terms and
    vote in new people that will represent the congressional districts that elected
    them. We need to have term limits. After two terms, they need to be replaced.

    1. Robert Klahn2 years ago

      There are no new jobs they can be educated for. There is little that pays well that can’t be exported.

      There should be no free trade agreements, fair trade only.

      As to not getting involved in other countries, that is how we stand back and watch genocide happen.

  20. Jim Wells4 years ago

    Interesting that there are fewer poor elderly than most other groups. Rather than dismiss this finding as some function of the Social Security System, I’d like to suggest that these individuals grew up at a time when savings was a virtue. Likely that they were introduced to the banking system as children, taken into banks by parents and grandparents to open pass book savings accounts. Then they returned to the banks on a regular basis to deposit money from birthdays, holidays, chores, part-time jobs, etc. They developed a habit of savings that provided a cushion against poverty. How sad that thrift is no longer a national virtue. That banks no longer offer simple savings accounts hospitable older Americans who want to cultivate thrift amongst the young. And that the nation’s central bank ultra-low interest rate policy effectively declared ‘War on Savers.”

    1. unique4 years ago

      You are so right. I learned to save from my parents.
      I find it interesting that my so called friends will spend
      money on what they want and not what they need. Then
      they look at me and make remarks like, “Well, you have money,”
      or “Will you leave something for Johnny and Dane.” No, I am
      leaving my money to my niece and nephew and the animal

    2. Sam Dobermann3 years ago

      @ Jim Wells; Oh please. you can’t generalize from your idealized dream or experience. Plenty of us old folks never saw anything as you describe.

      Mythic stories of prior golden ages abound. More likely the children of the children of the depression didn’t trust banks which failed by the thousands during the early years of the depression taking everyone’s saving with them.

      I never opened a bank account until I went to University in the mid 1950’s. Though banks were discussed nothing much was made of them.

    3. Robert Klahn2 years ago

      The personal savings rate dropped by 50% under Reagan.

      It’s not a matter of banks not having the accounts, or people not wanting to save, it’s a matter of people not having the money to save.

      Ask anyone who loses a job how long it takes to go through his entire life’s savings. Then, if he takes a lower paying job, he can never make it up.

      1. JD Scot2 years ago

        Funny thing we can afford to perform illegal surveillance to another country, (CHINA), and these same govt officials, can’t seem to do anything for people of OUR OWN COUNTRY. I read on the poverty page that they can fix it, but they choose not to!

  21. NEZA4 years ago

    I was born in 1925…My parents were immigrants from Jugoslavia…The first thing they did was learn to speak ENGLISH to become citizens of this great country. The worked menial jobs, we were poor but so was everyone else and we struggled but were happy with what we had. No TV – a second-hand radio was our entertainment. The homes were not given free phones or computers etc. There were no gov’t ‘handouts”…The welfare program came in around the ’30’s to help the men out of work…it was not geared for out of wedlock families..who have children just to “get” more welfare. Today I am almost 90…and yes, I struggle financially, but I will do “without” if need be rather than ask the gov’t. for aid. I too agree, that the gov.t cut out giving aid to countries that can hardly wait to destroy us…they are only “using us” …wake up America!

    1. Evelyn4 years ago

      Both Jim Wells and Neza are correct; when I was in grade school we were given a chance to open a savings account at our local bank for 25 cents a week. We thought we were big stuff having a savings account. It was a lesson in financial responsibility. Today the only thing taught with regard to finances is little to nothing. Schools push cultural sensitivity and just about everything else takes a back seat. Sad for education.

    2. Julie3 years ago

      We teach our children to be frugal but as my son who is 9 said to me today “I know things are just going to get harder in the future even with a good education and job and I am worried”. He’s correct if you just review the last 30 years. A house when I was little was 20k that same house (used now by a family for 30 years) is 400k.

      Everyone has their hand out and only a few of us are paying in. These poor single parents who were left holding the bag do need the help but our society needs to support parents and children and raise the minumum wage. This country eats their young.

      I know of people who get social security that never even worked and have plenty of money but they cash the check. That is wrong when there are children homeless.

      1. Bob Klahn2 years ago

        You don’t get social security without working or being a widow of someone who worked. Or a child up to age 18.

        Most are working but not getting enough to get ahead. You are right, it’s a disgrace that we have homeless children in this country.

      2. Robert Klahn2 years ago

        When the economy started it’s crash my younger children came to me worried about how they will never have a chance to make it. I told them I have seen it over and over, the economy goes up, it goes down, it goes up again.

        Now I am not at all sure. I greatly fear this country will crash again and not come back up for a generation. My children may be the generation that gets shafted.

        Yes, I am angry. We need jobs, not free trade agreements that send jobs to China.

  22. James Glasscock4 years ago

    I can only speak as a citizen of the state of Alabama, but this is my view. For 180 years since the beginning of Reconstruction, the Democratic Party has enslaved the low income citizens of this state. At every election, the Democratic Candidate has made promises of every description to the low income electorates. Whether through ignorance, lack of education or apathy, they have bought those promises, until now, the Democratic Candidates use the notion that they will loose benefits unless they vote Democratic. The battle cry has always been “We’re for the little man”. Never mind that there was always more poor after the end of the cycle than before. It is my contention that that the National Democratic Party is using the same tactics but using “Equality” as their banner. They are trying to create a classless society by beating down the middle class. The hierarchy believe they are ordained to rule the masses. If they succeed, can you say Russia, China, North Korea?

    1. Chuckie4 years ago

      You are dead on. I moved to Alabama after college and have seen the results of Political forces using and abusing those of low intelligence and undereducation to advance their personal wealth and power. The poverty caste is certainly enhanced by single parenthood which the Liberal Democrats favor.

    2. ccaffrey204 years ago

      To liken the Dixiecrats which ruled much of the South’s history to the current Democratic Party makes about as much sense as saying the current GOP is the party of Lincoln.

    3. Sam Dobermann3 years ago

      @ James:
      The Democratic Party was the party of the White supremacists from before the Civil War. They plumb hated Lincoln. It was the party of the KKK. It was the party of George Wallace with his “Segregation today, … tomorrow, … forever!” What they promised was nothing but a feeling of superiority.

      Until the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts in the mid 60s the South was solidly Democratic but after that the Republican party came to life. Slowly the habits of generations changed — aided by Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” The last of the Southern Senators to change parties was Richard Shelby.

      The same Whites who ran the South as Democrats are now running it as Republicans.

      So you have been trained to talk about “low income electorates” or how “those” who through ignorance, lack of education or apathy vote for Democrats, showing you have fallen for the same old “we can make you feel superior to other people schtick that Southerners have always fallen for.

  23. Dorene Wiese4 years ago

    American Indian women have always been the poorest people in America.

    1. Darla Kearce4 years ago

      Thank you for informing. Do you know about the rate of poverty among Native children?

  24. hailuayeru4 years ago

    Relay it is important information. thank you

  25. ErikKengaard4 years ago

    Poverty didn’t fall – taxpayer subsidies to the poor increased.

    1. Taxed4 years ago


      1. moteresa4 years ago


    2. Achim4 years ago

      And this is bad?

    3. martina marty3 years ago

      you mean tax subsidies to the corporations increased?

  26. ErikKengaard4 years ago

    ” . . . poverty has risen among Hispanics?
    It would be more accurate to say that we have imported more poor via immigration of Hispanic poor.
    Absent immigration, things would have been very different.

    1. moteresa4 years ago


  27. Alex4 years ago

    Fighting poverty is a complex equation and building social programs is part of that. It seems impossible to track exactly how much of the decrease in poverty has to do with the growth of the economy over the last 40 years and how much social programs have helped people get out of poverty as opposed to alleviating their poverty. Ultimately, I think education and access to opportunity is the cure-all, both growing the economy and creating opportunity. So…pay the teachers more!

  28. Taxed4 years ago

    The taxpayers, from their earnings, give over a TRILLION dollars a year to the poor via 80+ means tested giveaway programs. $16 trillion since LBJ’s War On Poverty started. The poor are now better off.
    Now that’s news. Who would have thought?
    Problem is – now we have to keep giving over a trillion a year, and growing. We have two classes of people in this country all right, those who have to carry their own weight in society and those who get a free ride that gets passed from generation to generation.

    1. moteresa4 years ago


    2. S W4 years ago

      All wars must come to an end. If not the population will run out of soldiers to send.

    3. Allan4 years ago

      Couldn’t agree more!! AND….the problem with poverty is not necessarily poverty, but someone’s definition of poverty. If we set the “poverty bar” at a certain level, then suddenly, someone who wasn’t living in “poverty”, now is. What PEW never really explains, often times caught in their own liberal agenda, is that though the percentages have relatively stayed the same, the numbers that make up those percentages have grown. %12.7 of the impoverished white population today, is NOT the same number as in 1966.

    4. Robert Klahn2 years ago

      You really do not know what you are talking about.

      Remember welfare reform? A five year limit, for a lifetime.

  29. April4 years ago

    Well the answer to all this is very clear……

    QUIT financially supporting wars in other countries that you have no business. Eing involved in & supporting the lives of immigrants you so freely invite into our countries to take advantage of the everyday hard working American & Canadian citizens, period. !
    Look after/clean up what’s in our OWN backyards.

    1. Petra4 years ago

      Couldn’t agree more!