Over the last half-century, since the passage of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty, there has been a major retrenchment of efforts to help the poor. Over the last five decades, the poverty rate of the elderly dropped significantly from 37 percent in 1960 to 9 percent in 2012. Poverty dropped much more modestly for children and the workforce.
In that era, jobs were at the center of efforts to alleviate poverty. Dr. King’s monumental march on Washington on August 28, 1963, was actually called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Economic Opportunity Act, the centerpiece of the war against poverty, sought to provide work and education for the needy to improve their lives.
Fifty years later, major educational gaps continue to distinguish the poor and non-poor members of the labor force. For example, one-fourth of the poor did not have a high school diploma in 2012 compared to nearly one-tenth of the non-poor. Further, the non-poor are three times more likely to be college graduates than the poor.
According to census public-use data for 1960 and 2012, the poverty rate of the U.S. workforce fell only slightly, from 14 percent in 1960 to 10 percent in 2012 — a mere 4 percentage points over 52 years. While the poverty gap between the minority and white workforce narrowed over the last five decades, black and Latino workers are still about 2.5 times more likely than whites to be impoverished today.
In fact, the poverty rate of the black labor force (17.2 percent) and the Latino labor force (16 percent) in 2012 was higher than that of whites (10.6 percent) in 1960.
Even more disturbing is the ballooning of the unemployment gap between the U.S. poor and non-poor workforce. While the poor were about 2.5 times more likely than the non-poor to be without a job in 1960, the unemployment gap increased to more than 4.5 times today. In 2012, 32 percent of the nation’s poor labor force was unemployed compared to 7 percent of the non-poor workforce. It is likely that the unemployment rate is actually higher, especially among the destitute, due to people leaving the labor force after lengthy periods of unsuccessful job searches.
The unemployment gap between the poor and non-poor was particularly wide among whites, where the white poor (30 percent) were five times as likely to be without a job compared to the white non-poor (6 percent) in 2012. Nonetheless, many impoverished people in the country are searching for employment. Indeed, the unemployment rate of the poor varied widely in 2012 from 43 percent among blacks to 30 percent among whites to 26 percent among Latinos.
However, among the poor, it is Latino immigrants who have the lowest unemployment rate (20 percent). This challenges notions that Latino immigrants come to the United States to live off the largesse of social services. In fact, Latino immigrants are more likely to be employed than other workers. In addition, Latino immigrants among the working poor are more likely than other impoverished employees to work longer hours and to hold jobs that are the least rewarded and desired.
Of course, a job does not ensure that the poor get out of poverty. Indeed, nearly 70 percent of the poor who are in the labor force are working. While the portion of U.S. workers who are poor declined from 1960 to 2000, there has been a reversal since. In 2012, about one of every 14 U.S. workers was in poverty. But being among the working poor is especially likely among workers of color. About one of nine black workers is poor, one in 10 native-born Latinos, and one in six Latino immigrants.
A lot has changed since the eve of the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964. The economy then was one in which manufacturing provided a good living for many Americans who had a high school diploma or less. Over the next few decades, such jobs shifted to the hands of workers abroad who toiled for a mere pittance of the pay of American workers. U.S. labor unions saw a major drop in membership and in bargaining power. The American economy increasingly took the shape of an hourglass where job growth expanded at the highest and lowest levels of the job hierarchy. The middle class progressively shrank.
The latest economic crisis has taken a toll on so many people, many of whom had never been poor before. Many people who are working today are still destitute and still others among the poor are desperately looking for employment. Increasingly, our society consists of a small elite body that controls an expanding share of wealth and income and a growing population of disadvantaged people whose sliver of resources is being whittled down.
In the mid-1960s, President Johnson passionately etched the face of the poor on the American consciousness and forcefully pushed for the establishment of policies to improve the lives of people on the margins. A half-century later, there is a stark absence of political leaders who see the poor as a priority.
Today, Republican-led policies, with relatively little resistance from Democrats, are escalating the war against the poor. Instead of creating opportunities to better the lives of the needy, legislators blame the poor for their dire straits. Congress has slashed food stamp allocations, terminated unemployment payments and thwarted the increase of the minimum wage for people viewed as too powerless to matter.
Over the last half-century, there has not been a more desperate time than today for visionary leaders who boldly push for the establishment of opportunities to improve the lot of our nation’s poor.
This commentary was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News.