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We are awash in retrospectives of the “War on Poverty,” launched 50 years ago this month by Lyndon Johnson. A furious debate has developed between those (mostly liberals) who consider the war an important, if incomplete, triumph and those (mostly conservatives) who judge it a wasteful defeat. In reality, we both won and lost the War on Poverty. This is an ambiguous truth that our acrimonious political culture has trouble accepting.

We won in the sense that programs for the poor have dramatically reduced hardship and have kept millions from destitution. To those who think that Washington mainly serves “fat cats,” Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution says: Look at the numbers. In 2011, he estimates, federal spending dedicated to the poor averaged $13,000 for every person below government’s poverty line, now $23,000 for a family of four.

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