In 1964, six months to the day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson invited U-M’s graduating class to join what he called the Great Society. The Great Society, as he described it in his commencement address, would end poverty, advance equality, revitalize cities, safeguard the environment, and bolster education. A skilled politician who had the grieving country’s support, Johnson spent the next year turning his Great Society vision into social-welfare legislation that became known as the War on Poverty.

Now that aspirational raft of legislation is frequently written off as a failure. “We waged a war on poverty,” Ronald Reagan famously cracked in 1987, “and poverty won.” Critics argue that the $23 trillion invested in social welfare programs over the last half century have barely nudged the poverty rate. Others argue that the poverty rate is so hopelessly flawed as a metric that it’s meaningless. These arguments neatly split along partisan lines.

“People say the programs they like, like Medicare, were part of the Great Society,” economics professor Martha Bailey says. “But Medicare was launched as a War on Poverty program. Offering health insurance to the elderly was intended to prevent middle class poverty. The War on Poverty had lots of little pockets of funding that did enormous good.”

There were certainly War on Poverty programs that failed by any measure, Bailey says, but she thinks people are too quick to dismiss the larger effort. As an example, Bailey points to the early childhood school readiness program, Head Start, which has clear benefits, measured mainly by test scores, for the kids it serves. The program recently lost some of its shine, however, when a report found those benefits had faded by the time kids reached first grade. Bailey and her colleagues wondered if the program’s effectiveness could be seen more clearly by asking a different question: If kids had access to Head Start as children, what would their assets and abilities look like when they reached middle age?

For Good Measure

When a program like Head Start launches, it’s typically evaluated around its first year, and this becomes the basis for gauging the program’s success. Some studies are lucky enough to have funding for a long-term evaluation, which means they might be able to follow participants for as long as five years. Five years of data are significant, of course, but they’re just a piece of the picture. “Those little boosts these programs give don’t just affect people tomorrow, or even in a week or a year,” Bailey says. “Some of the most effective programs play out over a lifetime.”

In Bailey’s Head Start Impact Study, she and her colleagues identified kids from selected counties who had reached preschool age between 1965 and 1980, a period when Head Start was becoming available all over the U.S. They compared those kids to kids from the same counties who had just missed being eligible for the first wave of Head Start because they were too old. The researchers then looked at data collected from both groups when participants were between the ages of 25 to 54—the years after most had finished their educations and had reached their peak earnings.

They found that the kids who’d participated in Head Start were 2.1 percent more likely to finish high school, 8.7 percent more likely to enroll in college, and 19 percent more likely to complete their degrees. In addition, they had a 12-percent reduction in adult poverty and a 29-percent reduction in public assistance—gains which, when combined, suggest that Head Start pays for itself.

“Even if you don’t see leaps in test scores in elementary school,” Bailey says, “you see much bigger wage growth and higher rates of college enrollment down the road.” The researchers also found improvements in the Head Start participants’ health that weren’t initially apparent. “And kids are generally healthy, they're pretty resilient," she explains, "so the changes don't show up for a while.”

A new program tackling child poverty would be difficult to launch today, Bailey says, because it is so hard to fund a program for which there are no evidence-based outcomes. “With a lot of good policy, there is no evidence yet. Sometimes having to have evidence that the policy is going to work becomes the enemy of doing anything at all.

“When the War on Poverty programs launched,” she continues, “there really wasn’t a lot of evidence on any of the programs, so they were free to experiment. They made some mistakes by funding projects that wasted a lot of money. But despite some chaos and lack of evidence and planning, they also launched projects, like community health centers and civil rights compliance programs, that have done a lot of good.”

So what has the War on Poverty told us? “That we can do more than we think,” Bailey says. “We do have a lot of money and resources we can marshal that can make a difference in the world. They key is to keep trying to figure out which ones work.”



Photograph by Staff Sgt. Shawn Morris