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Blog: What Have We Done About Poverty?

Dec 13, 2012 | By Rachael Travis

A Look at the History of Federal Legislation and the Effect It Has Had on Poverty

A few weeks ago my mentor approached me and asked me to create a timeline that would show major legislative actions we as a country have done to address poverty. I realized I could talk about current poverty legislation and our current poverty statistics, but I did not know about the evolution of poverty. Luckily, I was not simply given this seemingly daunting task, but was also given the resource “So Rich, So Poor” by Peter Edelman.

In his book, Edelman describes a trip he and Robert Kennedy took to Mississippi as a part of a fact-finding effort in order to reauthorize the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964. At the time, the War on Poverty was in its beginning stages and what Kennedy saw reflected that. Like so many people in this country, myself included, Kennedy had never found himself face-to-face with starving American children. The focus of the trip shifted to fact finding about why so many Americans were starving.

The timeline starts with the publication of the first poverty statistics in America, in1959, when 22.4% of the population fell below the poverty line. The timeline ends with the 2012 poverty statistics, which show that 15.1% of the population currently falls below the poverty line. The points in between are fairly balanced in number, with positive and negative actions, and they represent interesting points in American history.

Looking to the timeline, the 1971 amendment to the 1964 Food Stamp Act was passed, and people making zero income still had to pay for food stamps. This amendment made it so food stamps could not cost more than 30% of a family’s total income. The 1971 amendment to the SNAP Act was so effective in making food stamps more accessible that the number of participants doubled in a year, going from 4,340,000 people to 9,368,000.

Not surprisingly, two years following the passage of this amendment the country saw the lowest poverty numbers it had ever seen, and has seen to date (11.1%). This leads to an interesting year, 1973. 1973 saw both a historic low in our national poverty rate, 11.1% of the country was impoverished, but it was also a year when President Nixon attempted to reduce the number of people who were on welfare by requiring that all welfare recipients be required to work in order to receive their benefits. This concept was coined “workfare” and the intention behind it was that people in poverty who were receiving welfare benefits should be actively seeking, and in theory gaining, employment. Then the