Elderly Among Biggest Winners in the War on Poverty

The poverty rate among the elderly has plummeted during the last 50 years.

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With the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty falling in the middle of a slow economic recovery, it's easy to be pessimistic about the nation's progress in combating poverty – the share of Americans below 50 percent of the poverty line has nearly doubled during the last four decades, for example, and child poverty has fallen only slightly since 1964. However, a couple of groups have been among the most fortunate in the decades-long fight against poverty.

[SPECIAL REPORT: The War on Poverty]

The Winners: The Elderly

Depending on how you slice the data, any number of demographic groups have seen their poverty rates fall over the years. However, one group that has unquestionably seen dramatic improvements in its poverty rate is the elderly. While the national poverty rate has ultimately fallen by 4 points since 1964, when the War on Poverty began, from 19.0 in 1964 to 15.0 percent in 2012, the poverty rate for people over 65 has plummeted by more than two-thirds, from 28.5 percent in 1966 to 9.1 percent in 2012.

Note: Census Bureau does not have data on poverty rates for people over 65 for the years 1964 and 1965.

One key reason that elderly poverty rates have fallen so far is Social Security benefits, which are among the social assistance programs. In the 1970s, for example, benefit increases helped to boost the elderly (though they also created subsequent worries about the program's sustainability).

[READ: Nearly One Third of Americans Were in Poverty During Downturn]

The program remains vital to older Americans today. According to an analysis of Census data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the total poverty rate would be 22.1 percent without Social Security. Even more shocking: the poverty rate for the elderly would be 44.4 percent, not 9.1 percent, without the program.

Honorable Mention: Tax Credit Recipients

Though they're not included in the official poverty rate, tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit greatly boost many Americans' fortunes. According to the Census Bureau's supplemental poverty measure, which counts non-cash benefits like tax credits and Medicaid, 9.4 million people are kept out of poverty by refundable credits – far fewer than Social Security, but also more than food stamps and SSI combined.

Both of these groups, of course, are boosted by virtue of being beneficiaries of government spending. In the post-recession era, perhaps the best long-term poverty fix would be more steady jobs that pay decent wages. Finding a way to create those is more difficult (logistically, anyway) than providing tax breaks and benefit increases, but it could boost people above the poverty threshold and keep them there without outside support. However, the two need not be mutually exclusive; there is evidence that some government support systems and job creation go hand in hand.

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