The War on Poverty: Struggle changes as society evolves

By Paul R. Pace, News staff

Social workers rolled up their collective sleeves and joined in making a difference when President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty 50 years ago.

Interviews with social workers targeting poverty alleviation today make it clear that just as society evolves, so do the challenges of poverty. However, they say giving up is not an option.

The widening gap

It is imperative that the social work profession seeks system-level approaches to alleviating poverty, said Michal Grinstein-Weiss, a national and international expert in social and economic mobility and an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work. She is also associate director at the Center for Social Development.

Grinstein-Weiss says progress has been made to mitigate severe poverty in the U.S. since the 1960s, through the creation of Medicare, Medicaid and increased funding for housing and food subsidy programs. But many battles remain, she said.

“What I find more troubling than the U.S. poverty rate — which measures the adequacy of income — is the increasingly widening gap in America between the resources held by the rich and those held by the poorest,” she said. “That gap has continued to grow since we began measuring net worth in the early 1980s. Last year, the top 10 percent of American families held 75 percent of the nation’s net worth — the bottom 50 percent held only 1.1 percent of it.”

There is also a pronounced gap between racial groups, Grinstein-Weiss said.  In 2013, white families held 90 percent of the net worth in the U.S, black families held 2.6 percent, and Hispanic families held 2.3 percent, she said.

“Access to financial resources — or lack of access — has consequences that reach into every aspect of an individual’s life and into subsequent generations,” she said.

Social workers have been developing innovative approaches to help lessen poverty levels, Grinstein-Weiss said, but the profession must also face increasingly complicated challenges.

“As advocates for vulnerable populations, social workers must continue to make contributions in the conversations surrounding poverty, and the profession must engage more actively in policy discussions,” she said.

There is good news to report. Grinstein-Weiss pointed out several policy proposals that have the potential to substantially improve the lives of low-income families, including the proposal to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and President Obama’s new retirement savings program, myRA.

In addition, the research by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is investigating ways to educate and protect low-income consumers and the Center for Social Development is conducting research on universal Child Development Accounts, which holds promise as a policy to help close the gap in net worth.

“It is critically important for social workers to engage in these discussions,” Grinstein-Weiss said. “In part, their involvement is needed to ensure that the human face of poverty is not overlooked.”

From the November 2014 NASW News. Read the full story here.



  1. Income inequality has become a large problem in the U.S., and social mobility has become a thing of the past. As stated in the article, social workers should engage more actively in policies. Planning for retirement has been an increasing problem in the U.S. Lower income people tend to have very little to no savings; which leads to dependency on Social Security in their future years. Government retirement policies need more advocation. Coupled with the Affordable Care Act, responsible retirement planning and affordable healthcare for lower income individuals will lead to a striking income gap.

  2. I agree that we need to continue to work with low-income people to help them succeed. I do believe that legislature similar to myRa can help these people, but I believe it is more important to focus our funding efforts and legislature on public education. We need to provide better education to our youth so that they can create more opportunities for themselves. Over recent years the United States education rankings have continued to slip. “Our scores are stagnant. We’re not seeing any improvement for our 15-year-olds,” said Jack Buckley, commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm of the Education Department in an article published in 2013 by the Washington Post. In the same article they addressed past legislation that we had created in order to better public education. “While the intentions may have been good, a decade of top-down, test-based schooling created by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top — focused on hyper-testing students, sanctioning teachers and closing schools — has failed to improve the quality of American public education,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. We need to focus more on creating better public education for our youth so that they have more opportunities for themselves to succeed later in life.

    • I don’t think it’s about continuing “to help low-income” people (i.e. majority people of Color) to help them succeed. “These people” can succeed, but it’s the racism that is pervasive in all institutions that prevents people from succeeding by not providing adequate resources to all communities. As social workers, we must continue to work with ourselves to not become the oppressors. It is imperative for schools of social work to prioritize community organizing and antiracist anti-oppressive curriculum so that we are well equipped to change systems from within when we work WITHIN them.

  3. When discussing the widening gap between rich and poor in the U.S., another way of viewing it is a measure of success. More people are moving out of the lower and middle classes into upper income levels. If we have more financially-successful people, we are then being successful in moving people out of poverty.

    The research cited in the above article is very welcome….we should continue to work with low-income people to help them succeed in life, providing the education, skills and opportunities to do so.

    • Beth, do you have data to show that the middle and lower classes have simply gotten richer? This is simply not true. The same people are sitting at the top of the pyramid, they just have a larger share of the money now. I think that is the point of this article.

    • The article cites innovative ways to help low-income people out of poverty, but does not specify what or how these are implemented. We need to develop effective, efficient ways of educating and working with the poor to help them succeed.

      We lack data regarding effectiveness of government-run interventions to help the poor. Social Workers have traditionally advocated for endless taxpayer dollars to fund programs with few to no prove outcomes in alleviating poverty. The new challenge is for our profession to identify new opportunities and interventions that will be proven to raise incomes for lower-income people.

      The people at the top of the pyramid are people too! The article reports the top 10% of families hold 75% of the nation’s wealth. They also pay 75+% of the nation’s income taxes, while the bottom 51% pay no income taxes. They also support our economy through hiring, spending and voluntary contributions to not-for-profits through wonderful agencies like Community Foundations.

      We need to “unlearn” our old ways of helping the poor and learn new ways of doing things, lest our profession become obsolete. This is what the research in the article is described as doing.

  4. If we want to lessen this gap and help the poor, I think we can start with simple changes and work our way up from there. I think it would be beneficial if we had educational programs on financing to help keep the cost of leisurely spending lower. For instance, some people graduate high school or college without knowing how to balance a checkbook. Perhaps we could focus on helping to prevent more people from falling into that poverty line, and then work on helping those in poverty to get out. If these generations had help in organizing and balancing their budget, we may be able to help them get on their feet faster, while preventing more people from becoming poverty stricken.

    – Jennifer Urbaniak
    Miami University, Oxford, OH

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