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The war on poverty

Most of the 'poor' in the US are not poor for long.

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Four decades after President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964 it remains a compelling need in America. The US Census Bureau still measures poverty in great detail, and the total number of people living in poverty during each of the past 40 years has remained stubbornly high. After hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent to aid impoverished Americans, the conventional wisdom is that more than 35 million are still without adequate income.

Conventional wisdom describes the "poor" as a large and persistent group of families and individuals left out of the economic success of America. Enduring debilitating poverty, the poor - a group of individuals larger than California's entire population - are entitled to political advocates, specially funded programs, and government bureaucracies to coordinate benefits.

Fortunately for America, the basic description of the poor is wrong. And therefore public policy based upon an aggregate view of poverty is inherently misinformed. A closer look at the facts shows a different picture.

The Census Bureau and other researchers have been studying people and their families as they enter poverty, cope with the difficult challenges of poverty, and rise out of poverty as successful wage earners.

There are two basic areas of knowledge that offer the greatest illumination to our understanding of poverty in America: (1) The dynamics of poverty - how people enter poverty and exit poverty and how long people remain in poverty; and (2) the trigger points that cause people to become poor and the additional trigger points that enable people to rise out of poverty.

The basic facts are that while millions of people enter poverty (primarily because of a loss of a job or a family breakup) each year, most people remain poor for less than 5 months, and millions of people reenter the labor force and earn enough to rise above poverty. For two-thirds of people in poverty the transition in and out of poverty is relatively quick. For others, especially single parents with small children and the elderly beyond the work force, poverty is persistent for a number of years.

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