Marking a 50th birthday can be bittersweet – when I celebrated mine I spent time reflecting on the past and committing to only doing the things that help me move towards a more authentic, purposeful life. Last week the War on Poverty also turned 50, giving us an opportunity evaluate the successes (yes there have been some!) and challenges we face if we are to win this war.
NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof does a great job of laying out the past and identifying some of the best policies that address poverty, perhaps the most dangerous enemy we face. He reminds us that children, who are mostly voiceless and are the most damaged by poverty, are our best weapon. Lets build up our kids and make progress! It’s the moral thing to do…
Progress in the War on Poverty NY Times JAN. 8, 2014
America’s war on poverty turned 50 years old this week, and plenty of people have concluded that, as President Reagan put it: “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”
That perception shapes the right’s suspicion of food stamps, minimum-wage raises and extensions of unemployment benefits. A reader named Frank posted on my Facebook page: “All the government aid/handouts in the world will not make people better parents. This is why the ideas from the left, although always made with the best of intentions, never work. … All of this aid is wasted.”
Yet a careful look at the evidence suggests that such a view is flat wrong. In fact, the first lesson of the war on poverty is that we can make progress against poverty, but that it’s an uphill slog.
A Columbia University study suggests that without government benefits, the poverty rate would have soared to 31 percent in 2012. Indeed, an average of 27 million people were lifted annually out of poverty by social programs between 1968 and 2012, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
The best example of how government antipoverty programs can succeed involves the elderly. In 1960, about 35 percent of older Americans were poor. In 2012, 9 percent were. That’s because senior citizens vote, so politicians listened to them and buttressed programs like Social Security and Medicare.
I don’t want anybody to be poor, but, if I have to choose, I’d say it’s more of a priority to help kids than seniors. In part, that’s because when kids are deprived of opportunities, the consequences can include a lifetime of educational failure, crime and underemployment.
Research from neuroscience underscores why early interventions are so important. Early brain development turns out to have lifelong consequences, and research from human and animal studies alike suggests that a high-stress early childhood in poverty changes the physical brain in subtle ways that impair educational performance and life outcomes.
A careful review of antipoverty programs in a new book, “Legacies of the War on Poverty,” shows that many of them have a clear impact — albeit sometimes not as great an impact as advocates hoped.
For starters, one of the most basic social programs that works — indeed pays for itself many times over — is family-planning assistance for at-risk teenage girls. This has actually been one of America’s most successful social programs in recent years. The teenage birthrate has fallen by half over roughly the last 20 years.
Another hugely successful array of programs involved parent coaching to get pregnant women to drink and smoke less and to encourage at-risk moms to talk to their children more. Programs like Nurse-Family Partnership, Healthy Families America, Child First, Save the Children and Thirty Million Words Project all have had great success in helping parents do a better job with their kids.
Another area of success: Programs that encourage jobs, especially for the most at-risk groups. The earned-income tax credit is a huge benefit to the working poor and to society.
Likewise, a program called Career Academies has had excellent results training at-risk teenagers in specialized careers and giving them practical work experience. Even eight years later, those young people randomly assigned to Career Academies are earning significantly more than those in control groups.
As that example suggests, we increasingly have first-rate research — randomized controlled trials, testing antipoverty programs as rigorously as if they were pharmaceuticals — that give us solid evidence of what works or doesn’t.
So let’s drop the bombast and look at the evidence.
Critics are right that antipoverty work is difficult and that dependency can be a problem. But the premise of so much of today’s opposition to food stamps and other benefits — that government assistance inevitably fails — is just wrong. And child poverty is as unconscionable in a rich nation today as it was half a century ago.