There are two different ways of reading the information in the chart above.*
One way is that the various programs associated with the War on Poverty have succeeded, at least to some extent. That success can be seen in the difference between the “market poverty” rate (technically, the pretax/pretransfer anchored supplemental poverty rate) of 28.7 percent in 2012 and the “poverty rate with government programs” (technically, the anchored supplemental poverty rate) of 16 percent. Many fewer people are living at or below the poverty line with government transfers and tax credits than if those programs had not existed.
But there’s a second way of reading the chart: capitalism in the United States produces poverty at just about the same rate today (at 28.7 percent) as it did back in 1967 (when 27 percent of the U.S. population lived at or below the market poverty rate)—which makes it all that much more difficult for government transfers and credits to “solve” the problem of poverty. Thus, the War on Poverty still leaves 16 percent of Americans in poverty.
The conclusion, if we combine the two readings, is that the publicly provided social safety net (which lowered the poverty rate by some 40 percent in 2012) is actually a subsidy to large corporations, which continue to pay very low wages to millions of American workers and thus to generate enormous profits they alone appropriate and decide how to use.
The real War on Poverty will only begin when we decide to change how the economy itself is organized.
*The chart is from a column by Thomas B. Edsall, based on data presented in a paper by Christopher Wimer et al. (pdf).