A Brief History of Anti-Poverty Programs in the United States

poverty approaches to development

I’ve had a lot of students in our online courses ask me why they feel there is a distinction in the way we view and fight poverty in the United States vs. overseas. To understand this difference I find it helpful to look back at the history of anti-poverty poverty programs and the logic from which they were created. Below you’ll find a brief review of this history.

Prior to the Great Depression, poverty in the United States was not seen as responsibility of the government and was often left to religious and other charitable organizations. In the United States, poverty generally has been viewed as pathology of the individual rather than a consequence of macro-economic policies or discrimination. This is likely an outgrowth of dominant western worldviews concerning the role of the individual in economic life. “Reliance on private alms and limited community assistance was a natural outgrowth of Calvinist doctrine” (Levitan, 2003).

Reflective of this worldview anti-poverty policies and programs in the United States have focused primarily on the individual rather than on the state and societal political and economic structures – addressing the pathology of the individual by instilling a work ethic, education, and direct cash assistance. The first direct attempts by the federal government to address the burgeoning poverty problem in the United States during the great depression were the programs of the New Deal including the National Youth Administration, The Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Public Works Administration. These programs sought to create much needed employment and infrastructure for future economic growth until WWII when attention was diverted away from poverty (Levitan, Mangum, Mangum, and Sum 2003).

The issue of poverty reemerged in the 1960s as the postwar boom started to fade away and growing social and economic tensions aroused the attention of politicians. Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of a “War on Poverty” ushered in a new era of anti-poverty programs, the underlying assumption of which was still to address the pathology of individuals through education, skills training, and job creation (Levitan, Mangum, Mangum, and Sum 2003). Despite these efforts, poverty persisted.

The 1970s and 1980s many of the programs of War on Poverty were cut and consolidated into “Community Development Block Grants” and later into “Enterprise Zones.” Inspired by the British program, Enterprise Zones were based on the assumption that federal regulations inhibited market forces and if removed, would stimulate investment and job creation (Levitan, Mangum, Mangum, and Sum 2003; Lievschutz 1995). By the end of 1980 there were 2000 enterprise zones in thirty-seven states. However, despite the popularity of these programs, there has been a great deal of debate on their success in stimulating business development and creating employment for the poor.

Despite the fact that the most persistent and growing poverty is found in the rural areas, most anti-poverty is focused on the urbanized areas. “In 1996, the rural poverty rate was 15.9 percent, higher than the urban rate of 13.2 percent, a level that has been relatively stable for most of a decade” (Reid, 1996). Rural development policy was guided mostly by agriculture development, infrastructure development, and the utilization of natural resources.

According to Reid, all these programs have only addressed the basic needs and standard of living of the poor, missing the more important underlying causes of poverty “which are often an outgrowth of historic and contemporary social divisions that cut the poor out of opportunities to share power, equal opportunities and, in the end, hope” (Reid, 1996). To summarize, anti-poverty programs in the United States have been an outgrowth of the broader economic, political and cultural climate that has largely turned a blind-eye to persistent problems of structural racism and widening inequality. As for the distinction with the way we view poverty in the international arena, I think questioning corruption and inequality in other countries is simply an easier pill to swallow.

Ideas and concepts discussed in this post are also discussed in the following courses in our Online Certificate Program in Sustainable Community DevelopmentApproaches to Community DevelopmentCommunity-Based Organizing, & Development and the Politics of Empowerment.

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