Just The Facts

America’s 50-Year War on Poverty

Key figures on poverty in the United States, five decades after President Johnson launched his “war.”

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  • White Americans are the greatest number of poor Americans (18.9m), but blacks have the highest poverty rate (27.2%).
  • The poverty rate for Hispanic Americans is 25.6%, nearly as high as for black Americans.
  • US poverty rates vary along regional lines. The poverty rate is highest in the South, at 16.5% in 2012.
  • The US poverty rate for full-time workers is 3%, while for part-time workers it’s 16%. For the jobless, it’s 33%.

1. The poverty rate varies dramatically by race. The poverty rate for black Americans was the highest — at 27.2% — of the four major racial groups tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau.

2. That was nearly double the official poverty rate of 15% for the nation as a whole.

3. The 10.9 million blacks in poverty accounted for almost a quarter of the 46.5 million Americans living in poverty in 2012.

4. The poverty rate for white Americans, at 9.7%, was about three times lower than for black Americans.

5. However, because white Americans constitute such a large percentage of the overall population, they constitute the largest number of Americans living in poverty — 18.9 million.

6. The poverty rate for Hispanic Americans was, at 25.6%, nearly as high as for black Americans.

7. Hispanics comprise the second-largest ethnic group in the United States, and they are also the second-largest group of Americans living in poverty — at 13.6 million.

8. Asian Americans are the smallest of the four major U.S. racial groups. In 2012, the poverty rate for this group was 11.7%.

9. This means that 1.9 million Asian Americans were living in poverty last year, or about 4% of all Americans in poverty.

10. Poverty rates also vary along regional lines. The poverty rate is highest in the South, where 16.5% of people were poor in 2012. This compares to 13.3% in the Midwest, 13.6% in the Northeast, and 15.1% in the West.

11. In 2012, 21.8% of all Americans under the age of 18 were poor, compared to 13.7% of those aged 18 to 64. The poverty rate was lowest among Americans 65 and older — at 9.1%.

12. Spending by the federal government on the major means-tested programs for low-income Americans — including Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) — amounted to $588 billion in 2012.

13. That was $82.5 billion less than the $670.5 budget for defense-related expenditures.

14. While the U.S. government has invested significant sums of money to reduce poverty or to provide the resources that keep many millions from falling into poverty, it is clear that a key weapon in the War on Poverty is job creation.

15. The poverty rate for full-time workers in 2012 was just 3%, while for part-time workers it was 16% — and for those who had no job, it was 33%.

Editor’s note: With a few exceptions, the data in this feature are from the U.S. Census Bureau. They can be found here, in Table 3. People in Poverty by Selected Characteristics: 2011 and 2012.

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Responses to “America’s 50-Year War on Poverty”

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  1. On January 13, 2014 at 8:00 pm orestes responded with... #

    The very simple conclusion is that the more you invent programs for the poor, the more the poors increase. The only sentence I liked was “the key weapon for poverty reduction is job creation”. But which jobs and where. I think that at least it is imprtant having them doing something, like cleanin streets and parks. And assitance to the poor should be temporary and if possible non burocratic. I have one question : we spend more in poor assistance or in the burocracy around it?

  2. On January 17, 2014 at 10:01 am billk responded with... #

    Economic inequality is real and growing in most developed countries. Between 1983 and 2007, median family income grew 21.6% above inflation. Although we do live in an increasingly meritorious society, it grew in all five income quintiles, but fastest in the more affluent. To improve conditions, we need to switch to high growth policies.

    With respect to upward mobility, a U.S. Treasury study found there was considerable income mobility in the decades of high growth, less so in decades of low growth. The single biggest obstacle to upward economic mobility is the failure of inner-city public schools.

    Rather than building policies around income redistribution, we should promote pro-growth policies and better schools and teachers. This Administration has failed to effective address either problem.