Too much of the discussion of the 50 years since LBJ’s “War on Poverty” has been fueled by our partisan divide instead of refocusing us around a common mission. Of course, it is healthy to reflect on what progress has or has not been made. But the issue is often framed as a false choice between” fiscal responsibility” and “funding to help the poor”. Our conversations should focus on what is working and what is not working.
I am convinced that poverty in the U.S. would be far worse without programs launched during LBJ’s Great Society. Poverty among seniors has gone from 35% in 1960 to 9% in 2011. Poverty has been cut by a third when you factor in tax credits and other payments. But common sense would suggest that the programs of fifty years ago might not be the best approaches today. With 80 federal programs addressing poverty, there is likely opportunity for culling and modernizing programs.
Like few other public policy issues, Democrats and Republicans actually seem close to finding some areas of common ground regarding poverty and economic mobility. Most Americans think of their country as a place of “equal opportunity, but not of equal results”. Long held Democratic thinking has understood, however, that equal opportunity is a social creation, not a natural condition that results from market forces and a civil society. Government holds some responsibility for creating the ground for that equality of opportunity; for providing a fair chance. I believe we are seeing some conservative politicians and analysts coming to accept this vital role of government.
A fair chance means a child reaching kindergarten ready to read, a young person graduating from high school and having some postsecondary education or career training. Equal opportunity also means a job market where people are hired on the basis of talent and drive.
Programs I am aware of and support: Women Infants and Children, at home nursing initiatives to serve low-income first time mothers, child care subsidies targeted to low-income families (60% of poor children are in single mother households), universal pre-K targeted for disadvantaged families (which I assume is an expanded Head Start or a replacement of Head Start), nontraditional student education and training for working persons.
Many children reach kindergarten far behind their more fortunate peers and never catch up. Poverty is part of the problem. So are parenting and family structure. (Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) has recently broached these issues.) Whether a child grows up in a two parent family is one of the top predictors of social mobility. We all know single parents who have defied the odds and raised children who grew to be successful, contributing citizens to the community. But statistically, the odds are against children raised in single parent households.
Government can help by never financially penalizing marriage. Governments should eliminate any marriage penalty in assistance programs so that two people don’t lose assistance by getting married to each other (e.g. the EITC). We can help families stay together by reforming our criminal justice that sends a parent to jail for a nonviolent drug offense (The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. Every parent who goes to jail has a family that becomes economically disadvantaged.)
Part of the reason for single mother families is that in some communities there are few gainfully employed men to marry. Government should continue experimenting with stimulating investment and entrepreneurship in pockets of poverty. We should continue developing secondary education tracts that are alternatives to college preparation. Apprenticeships (union and private sector) are a way to close the skills gap in our country and increase lifetime earnings. South Carolina has seen a 500% increase in apprenticeships in recent years.
Cash transfers (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) and in kind supports (food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid) are needed to maintain the welfare of low income people. But unless assistance builds opportunity, it will never be enough.