A Brief History

Trends in poverty in the United States have fluctuated quite drastically throughout history. In the 1800s, before child labor laws, all members of poor and working class families had jobs. In cities, children and parents alike worked in factories or mines. In rural communities, the entire family helped with crops on the farm. In both situations, children didn’t go to school. What little education they received came from older generation family members, who also had no formal education.

In the late 1920’s, after World War I, at the start of the Great Depression, the “national income dropped by more than 50 percent,” with wage earners losing 60 percent of their income and salary workers losing 40 percent of their income (Collis Greene, p. 28). During this time, poor families fell deeper into poverty. The popular musical Annie portrays a spunky orphan during this era who finds herself falling into a rich family. However, the reality of the situation was that orphans didn’t get adopted by lonely millionaires. In fact, during this time, orphanages not only housed orphans, “but also included a growing number of children whose parents could not care for them” (Collis Greene, p. 28). Living conditions here were not much better than at home. Children were underfed, slept in cramped quarters, and were often beaten. It goes without saying that education during this time was still neglected.

President Roosevelt’s New Deal created federal aid and welfare that helped those in poverty through the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. In 1964, President Johnson declared War on Poverty, and created many offices, acts, and programs like the Economic Opportunity Act or the Office of Economic Opportunity. But what does all this legal talk mean? How do you fight poverty? President Johnson, along with his staff, wanted to “build up job training programs; involve community groups in local rejuvenation efforts; bring legal services into poor communities; and improve the nation’s decaying infrastructures for physical and mental health, proper nutrition and drug treatment” (Abramsky, p. 13). The War on Poverty seemed to have a clear winner: the United States poor. Within ten years of President Johnson’s campaign, the U.S. poverty rate dropped to just 11 percent. Some programs developed during this time are still in effect today. Check out:

Job Corps


Head Start

Today, however, the numbers are much different. According to a recent study, of Americans “between the ages of 25 and 60, 61.8 percent of the population will experience at least one year of poverty” (Rank & Hirschl, p. 8). In today’s society, well over half the population will experience extreme financial struggles that they will be considered to be living in poverty. This can affect nutrition and mental health, living conditions, and even education. In fact, “benefits of economic growth flow up to the wealthiest 5 percent,” leaving 47 million Americans, total, below the poverty line, of which 22.5 percent are kids (Abramsky, p. 14). The study states that those who are “younger, with less education, having a work disability, being not married, nonwhite, and female” all have increased odds of poverty (Rank & Hirschl, p. 9).

But poverty isn’t as easy to combat as it was when President Johnson declared war. Even in Johnson’s time, “more than four out of five Americans…believed [War on Poverty] to be unwinnable” (Abramsky, p.14). This bleak of poverty is even worse today. In today’s society, there is a perception of those in poverty. Before any substantial decline in poverty can happen, these perceptions must change. A popular view is that “poverty and suffering represent individual failures rather than flaws in our political and economic systems” (Collis Greene, p. 26). Other popular perception include the ideas that those in poverty are lazy and would rather benefit from the hard-working middle class, that they are unwilling to better themselves, or that they don’t mind their current living conditions. Even now, there are campaigns to cut benefits like food stamps, limit money allowed for programs like Head Start, and promote drug tests for those applying for welfare and unemployment.

For more information on the stats and numbers in the U.S., check out the United States Census Bureau. As a community and as a nation, we all need to do our part to combat poverty. To find out what you can do, whether you’re a parent, student, or teacher, explore our other sections for ideas and further information.

Poverty: The History of a Measure[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]


Abramskey, S. (2014). The battle hymn of the War on Poverty. Nation, 298(5), 12-17.

Collis Greene, A. (2016). The real Depression. Christian Century, 133(5), 26-31.

Rank, M.R., & Hirschl, T.A. (2015). The likelihood of experiencing relative poverty over the life course. Plos One, 10(7), 1-11. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0133513


Author: alliboyer

I am a graduate student at San Jose State University working on my MLIS degree. I'm an avid knitter, crocheter, and all-around crafter. I enjoying hiking and generally being outdoors. My cat and I spend the rest of my free time bonding over jigsaw puzzles.

One thought on “A Brief History”

  1. I like that you brought up the stereotypes that are often connected to the poor – lazy, ignorant, takers. The sad reality is that because there is a lot of despair and shame associated with not being able to provide for one’s self or one’s family, the conversation is very rarely open for re-education. Most who suffer from poverty do not see it as a source of pride, like other differences that have negative stereotypes associated with them. African Americans long suffered (and still suffer) negative stereotypes associated with the color of their skin, but many combat these ideas through openly expressing pride in their race and heritage. Same can be said of other groups – for example, the feminist movement, “Gay Pride,” and “Brown Pride” among others. But it is unheard of that the impoverished stand up proudly extolling their poverty! While the conversation must be opened, we can not leave it to the poor to make the battle call. Thanks for opening the discussion.


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