Since the launch of the Great Society and the War on Poverty, there has been a contentious debate over its impact. Historians and economists try to assess the effects on poverty rates and the economy, with many competing analyses put forward. Some argue that Johnson's policies suceeded, significantly reduced poverty rates. Others argue that the policies had negative effects on the economy and led to more poverty in the long-term. The poverty rate is defined as the percentage of Americans living below the ‘absolute poverty line.’ The absolute poverty line is defined by the Office of Health and Human Services as the threshold at which families can afford the basic necessities of food, shelter and clothing. For exmaple, the 2011 poverty line was a yearly income of $22,350 for a family of four. In 2004, more than 35.9 million, or 12% of Americans, including 12.1 million children, were considered to be living in poverty, with an average growth of almost one million per year.
The War on Poverty coincided with a reduction in poverty rates. The United States government began keeping comprehensive records of the poverty rate in 1958, and the poverty rate had been declining when the War on Poverty was launched in 1964 – it fell from 22.4% in 1959 to 19% in 1964. The poverty rate declined further after the implementation of the War on Poverty, hitting a low point of 11.1% in 1973. That year, President Nixon dismantled the Office of Economic Opportunity (the agency in charge of the War on Poverty's key programs), transferring many of its programs to other agencies. The poverty rate has fluctuated between 11% and 15.2% since then.
Even noting the decline in poverty rates, there is still disagreement about the effects of the War on Poverty and the Great Society. From President Johnson's first speeches about the Great Society, critics charged the policies were an attempt to institute socialism. Some economists, including Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, have argued that Johnson's policies actually had a negative impact on the economy because of their interventionist nature. Adherents of this school of thought recommend that the best way to fight poverty is not through government spending but through economic growth. They would explain the reduction in the poverty rate as caused by the economic growth of the 1950's and 60's, or as a short-term effect of policies, later counter-balanced by negative long-term effects of the policies.
Some critics of the Great Society point out that the War on Poverty's outsized attention to African-Americans led to a backlash among white Americans. The policies created the perception of favoritism, with middle class tax payers footing the bill for ever-increasing services to the poor. This led to diminished support for welfare programs, especially those targeted to specific groups and neighborhoods. These criticisms are answered thusly by proponents of Johnson's programs: anti-poverty programs are necessary not for the well-being of the poor, but for the highest American principle of justice. In this argument, economic inequality leads to inequality of opportunity so severe that Americans cannot ignore it and still claim to be a free and equal society.
Another criticism of the Great Society is made by Libertarian economist Thomas Sowell, and his view is echoed by many. Sowell argues that the Great Society programs only contributed to the destruction of African-American families, saying "the black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life." Others disagree with this theory, arguing that Sowell discounts the long-term, cumulative damge of generations of slavery, discrimination and poverty on black culture. Sociologists such as Douglass Massey argue that the living conditions associated with very-low income neighborhoods cause the cultural changes Sowell observes.
The Great Society remains controversial, particularly among conservatives. Many of its programs were dismantled by Republican administrations. Historian Alan Brinkley has suggested that "the gap between the expansive intentions of the War on Poverty and its relatively modest achievements fueled later conservative arguments that government is not an appropriate vehicle for solving social problems." One of Johnson's aides, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., has countered that "from 1963 when Lyndon Johnson took office until 1970 as the impact of his Great Society programs were felt, the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in this century."