To be sure, the initial Great Society programs helped reduce chronic black poverty. But the poverty rate was already dropping: in the prosperous early ’60s, black poverty plummeted from 56 percent to 34 percent; in contrast, in the years after President Lyndon Johnson launched the war on poverty, it dropped only slightly, to 32 percent. But by the ’70s this progress—despite the implementation of such programs as affirmative action—slowed to a crawl, in large part due to cascading social problems, particularly in industrial cities like Baltimore.
Many progressives have blamed conservatives starting with President Reagan for the conditions that still prevail for many African Americans. Yet it turns out that expansive era was pretty good for blacks, if not for their leaders. Even as poverty spending growth slowed, the poverty rate dropped in the Reagan years to around 30 percent for African-Americans. Similarly the economic boom of the Clinton era saw even greater progress, with poverty dropping to 25 percent. It began to rise again, albeit slowly, during the tepid recovery of the Bush era, but then began to rise more steeply during the Great Recession, and through the slow, and also tepid, recovery of the Obama years.
Clearly an improved economy is more important than ramping up social spending. Indeed, according to USC’s Luke Phillips, states. like New York, Massachusetts , California and Illinois spend almost twice as much on welfare payments than do states like North Carolina, Texas, or Florida, both in terms of GDP and state spending. Yet the best results for African Americans in our Center for Opportunity Urbanism study were found overwhelmingly in the former Confederacy, states generally not well known for their generosity to the poor or interest in racial redress.