Intended and Unintended Effects of the War on Poverty

What Research Tells Us and Implications for Policy

Published in: Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, v. 34, no. 3, Summer 2015, p. 639-696

Posted on RAND.org on June 19, 2015

by Marianne P. Bitler, Lynn A. Karoly

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During the mid-1960s, the United States adopted a series of cash and in-kind transfer programs, as well as human capital investment strategies, as part of the War on Poverty. A number of other programs were first proposed as part of this "war" but were not implemented until the mid-1970s. These programs had noble goals: to increase incomes at the bottom of the income distribution, reduce poverty, and improve nutrition, heath, and human capital. However, various features of the programs also had the potential to produce unintended consequences: for example, means-tested programs can discourage work. In this paper, we comprehensively evaluate the main War on Poverty programs that were aimed at the low-income nonelderly population along with several follow-on programs. We focus on both intended and unintended consequences, drawing on the most compelling causal evidence. We conclude with a series of lessons learned and questions that are outstanding.

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