A fixture in the community of scholars focusing on issues of poverty, inequality, and social policy for more than 40 years – Robert Plotnick – is retiring this spring from the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. Bob has long been a mentor and friend, and his retirement announcement provided me with a nudge and opportunity to read, Progress Against Poverty: A Review of the 1964-1974 Decade, published in 1975 with co-author Felicity Skidmore. Apart from being one of the first scholarly efforts to assess the impact of the War on Poverty, Progress Against Poverty has the distinction of being the first book volume commissioned by the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (IRP).
Even though scholars are busy assessing contemporary features of the safety net and the War on Poverty’s legacy more than fifty years later, this book provides important initial insight into the dramatic policy changes that occurred from 1964 to 1974, and their impact on poverty. The narrative and findings should be required reading for all young(ish) scholars interested in poverty trends today and the debates around retrenchment versus maintenance of the welfare state.
The book provides a careful analysis of the War on Poverty’s initial policies and programs, many of which continued or were expanded after Lyndon Johnson left office. Plotnick and Skidmore’s narrative walks readers through important changes in Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC, now Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF) that set up many of the debates we have around welfare cash assistance today. The volume documents rising federal spending on housing assistance at the time, as well as expansion of Food Stamps (now Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), funding for education and employment training, shifts in supports for the elderly and disabled, and the early expansions of health care coverage for low-income Americans through Medicaid. Plotnick focuses on changes in these programs during the late 1960s and early 1970s, but clearly sees the growth of food assistance and health insurance coverage for the poor that would come in subsequent decades.
Plotnick’s analyses of social program expenditures highlights the impact of these programs on income poverty. Antipoverty expenditures to the poor doubled from 1965 to 1972. Exploiting CPS microdata, which was just becoming available to the research community in the early 1970s, his analysis shows that over this period public transfers dramatically reduced the official “poverty gap,” or the income needed to lift every poor household above the poverty line. It also documents persistent differences across demographic groups in the antipoverty impact of transfers. Plotnick carefully observes that many of the important features of the War on Poverty social safety net don’t readily show up in the official poverty measure or wouldn’t show return on investment for years. Progress on poverty reduction also appeared to slow or reverse in the early 1970s, particularly among households with working-age adults. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see the optimism that scholars and policymakers had following the War on Poverty. Even though antipoverty program funding didn’t eliminate the poverty gap completely, increased cash transfers to the poor held the promise to do so.
Yet, in the end the book ponders the future of a social safety net. Even in the mid-1970s, the volume recognizes the slow, steady move away from a safety net reliant on cash transfers to one reliant on in-kind assistance and support services. Close to my own interests in place and poverty, the book shows some evidence that the geography of poverty was starting to shift in the early 1970s. The concluding chapter points to the challenges facing the safety net at the time: variation in eligibility and administration across the states, inequality in access to assistance, inefficient targeting of resources at the most needy. Poignantly, the book traces these features of the antipoverty safety net to political attitudes and biases in the U.S. that dampen support for the safety net. If one squints just a little to obscure the dates, the conclusion feels all too familiar to discussions and debates of current times.
When reading the volume, one is struck by the parallels to today. I asked Bob what he thought of these parallels. He said “I agree. That we are still having similar debates about poverty and anti-poverty policy reflects the enduring American distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, which presents enormous challenges to crafting a safety net that ensures minimally decent incomes to all families and is politically viable.”
This book volume is just part of what has been an impactful research career. Bob has published many dozen articles, books, chapters, reports, and briefs exploring a range of social policy topics. In fact, many themes present in this book reverberate throughout Bob’s subsequent published research around income support and child support programs. My favorite most recent example, Bob Plotnick is an active co-investigator with me and a team of scholars on the Minimum Wage Study at the University of Washington, which is considering the impact of the higher minimum wage on the well-being of low-wage workers.
Progress Against Poverty also calls out the importance of training and research centers. The preface to the book poignantly recognizes the support and counsel of Robert Haveman, Robert Lampman, Irwin Garfinkel, and others at IRP who served as the cornerstones for what we might think of as the modern era of poverty and social policy research. The work of these early IRP scholars — and the generations of scholars they have trained or influenced — continue to have a powerful imprint on poverty research and policy discussion today. One can also read IRP Director Lonnie Berger’s December letter to the community, outlining its ongoing work and its leadership role in creating a new U.S. Collaborative of Poverty Centers. Similarly, Bob has been integral to the development of the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology and the West Coast Poverty Center at the University of Washington, both of which train new generations of scholars concerned with inequality and social policy.
One final note. I shared with Bob that I was writing this short piece recognizing the contributions of Progress Against Poverty The next day, he came by my office with a signed copy – original first edition hardcover with jacket. It sits prominently on my bookshelf. That gesture also captures who Bob is beyond a scholar – a solid colleague, a generous person, and a great friend. Thanks for being a key part of my intellectual and professional development. Here’s to the next phase of life!
-Scott W. Allard