Madison, Wis. — With the proportion of America's poor on the rise for each of the last five years, it is often assumed that the war on poverty was a dismal failure. Was it?
Looking back over the 20 years since Lyndon Johnson launched his monied attack on the problem - a battle continuing to some degree ever since - Sheldon Danzinger, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty, says it has produced at least one victory and some invaluable lessons.
And he says that without that initiative, America's poverty rate might well be over 25 percent rather than the 15.2 percent - its highest point in 18 years - recently reported by the United States Census Bureau.
The presidential candidates have been bickering lately over the administration's treatment of the elderly poor - Walter Mondale accuses President Reagan of making ''mean-spirited'' cuts in programs to help them. Nevertheless, Dr. Danzinger says, America's poorer senior citizens are the one shining example of the effectiveness of the war on poverty.
''It's the one group for whom poverty has continued to decline,'' says Danzinger, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin, where the poverty institute is based. ''The rate dropped faster earlier on, but it's been a continual downward line.''
In his view, the reasons are simple. By and large, benefits for the elderly poor, which include a uniform minimum level of help under the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, have been indexed to inflation and subject to few budget trims. And since America's elderly poor are largely out of the labor force, they tend to be unaffected by economic conditions such as recession or unemployment. An August report titled ''The Reagan Record,'' by the Washington-based Urban Institute, notes that after-tax income of the elderly in general went up two or three times as much as that of the average American between 1980 and '84.
By contrast, Danzinger says, families headed by women - a group growing in size and considered particularly prone to poverty - have fared much less well. Many such women have low-paying jobs and thus are similarly impervious to changing economic conditions. But Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) , the main support for many, was one of the programs hardest hit by recent federal budget trims. And, unlike SSI, AFDC establishes no minimum benefit level. ''In many states the SSI benefit for a couple is much greater than the AFDC benefit for a family of four,'' Danzinger says.
Thus President Reagan's July decision, which Congress is expected to follow - to increase social security payments even if inflation is not high enough to trigger an automatic increase - may well have a small impact on the nation's poverty problem.
''I would have used the money to provide some sort of program or aid to females heading families with children, whose poverty rates are much higher than those of the elderly. ... But that's the difference between research and politics,'' he says.
Danzinger cites a late 1983 Wisconsin study on which he worked that found that few women getting AFDC quit their jobs in order to qualify for larger benefits, after federal cuts two years ago sharply reduced the help they were getting.
''What came out of the studies was a surprise,'' says Danzinger. ''A lot of people predicted that the work incentive was being taken away (by the cuts), but the work effort of the AFDC mothers did not go down.''
Part of the problem with the war on poverty, he says, was that many of its expectations were not realistic. Many thought the need for special programs, for instance, would diminish as social security coverage was strengthened.
''If you had told the people drafting the legislation that 20 years later we'd still be spending all this money maintaining a safety net, (they would have said,) 'That's not what we have in mind - we want to retrain people and make sure they have a fair chance to earn their way out of poverty.' It was to be a hand up and not a hand out. ... (But) people thought there were simple answers. Expectations went up. Even though progress was made ... we never quite achieved what we expected. And that led people to think nothing could work.''
Yet in his view if there had been no war on poverty, the situation for many Americans would be far worse than it now is. Although some programs such as Model Cities and Legal Services have been phased out, it was the '60s legislation that established such staples of the welfare system as medicaid and medicare and expanded the food stamp and social security programs. SSI, Danzinger notes, grew out of President Nixon's welfare reform effort.
''The question is not what the bottom line is today - with poverty up - but where would we be if we didn't have these programs in place? I think we'd have poverty rates over 25 percent.''
Still, when asked what is most needed in the fight against poverty now, he admits that the answers again carry heavy price tags. And given the state of the federal deficit, he is not optimistic that much headway will be made. He notes that just as there was a consensus a few years ago that the nation must adopt a national health-care program, so now there is a consensus that medicare must be cut back. In his view there will be some reduction in the poverty rate in 1984 if current programs stay in place and economic growth continues.
''But it probably won't get down to 13 percent for a couple more years, and will remain well above the levels of the '70s (when it averaged 12 percent), throughout the '80s.''
Of help to some poor people, he says, will be the new child-support law passed by Congress in August, which allows withholding of salaries from parents who avoid paying child support. But Danzinger says anything else he can think of would cost money. ''Without spending more, it's very difficult to do anything.''
As he sees it, special programs will continue to be necessary for certain groups, and many changes are needed in existing programs. ''The only programs where you can say, 'Just keep them in place' are those helping the elderly.''