Just read this great piece on poverty and policy, forthcoming in this weekend’s NYT magazine. It’s worth the read, but I wanted to hit some highlights.
I found the key points to be:
–President Obama has done a lot more for low-income families than most people realize, largely through Recovery Act programs.
–At the same time, and despite the fact that insights about the plight of families stuck in urban poverty were formative for the President, he has not tried to raise the visibility of the issue—“to change and elevate the national conversation on poverty.”
–Powerful research—not to mention common sense—is increasingly learning about the deep and lasting damage that deep poverty does to children stuck in it. Moreover, much of what policy does is palliative as opposed to transformation.
I thought the piece didn’t hit quite hard enough on an economic point I’ll note below, but first, here are some points worth underscoring:
The Right Rate: As we constantly stress here at CBPP, you can’t learn about how many people are poor by looking at the official rate (I wrote an oped for the NYT about that almost a decade ago!). The piece does a nice job of highlighting this point, showing that once you factor in many of the initiatives that were significantly expanded to help low-income families weather the storm of the Great Recession—food stamps, Medicaid, the Earned Income and Child Tax credits, highly subsidized job opportunities for low-income parents—you get a very different result from the official poverty rate which omits these benefits.
Some people noticed. Paul Tough, the author of the NYT piece, quotes one of the most important social analysts of deep urban poverty, William Julius Wilson:
When I asked…Wilson…for his thoughts on the current administration’s antipoverty efforts, he said that Obama had “done more for lower-income Americans than any president since Lyndon Baines Johnson.”
The Furman Effect: OK, this point is slightly personal. Jason Furman is a friend who’s still a prominent member of the President’s economics team. I was happy to see the article reflect the fact that he fought hard for the expansions of the above measures in the Recovery Act—very hard, against some nasty headwinds. You wouldn’t know it, because he keeps a low profile, which is also kind of remarkable in this town. But I well remember his recognition that we needed to significantly boost the anti-poverty measures in the stimulus, and back in early 2009, he was a force on Capitol Hill fighting for them.
Better Schools Are Only Part of the Answer: This one’s very important and well-portrayed in the piece. We can and must do all we can to improve urban schools, but it’s simply unrealistic to expect them to fully offset the constellation of challenges created by deep urban poverty.
Welfare Reform is Part of the Problem: I’ve had some good things to say about the work-based welfare reform that passed in the mid-1990s. It’s neither fair nor sustainable policy to provide cash benefits with few strings attached to a select group of low-income households. But if we’re going to condition benefits on work, then policy makers must ensure that work that pays a family wage is readily available. Absent that, the program can only lead to deeper poverty.
Paul Tough well understands this point and makes the impact of deep poverty on the children in these households a key focus of his piece:
If your parents can’t handle the work requirements to get federal cash aid [I’d add “if they can’t find decent work”], then you’re more likely to need extra help to perform well in kindergarten. But these children are often among the least likely to get additional specialized services. In other words, the way we direct services to poor children would work better if we did more or less the opposite of what we’re doing today.
So, what’s missing from this otherwise careful look at the lay of the land?
I found it interesting that Tough cites William J Wilson in numerous places but pays too short shrift to one of Wilson’s most prominent conclusions: the dwindling employment and earnings opportunities of the historical marriage partners of many single moms’ whose families are stuck in deep poverty.
The loss of family-wage jobs to non-college educated men—and not just minority men—was a well-documented problem even when Wilson wrote his influential treatise on urban poverty—The Truly Disadvantaged—in the 1980s, and it was a core theme of the book.
Tough convincingly argues that our anti-poverty agenda lacks the more lasting—and often more expensive—interventions targeted at deep poverty’s youngest victims with the potential to reset their life trajectory and even their neurology, like Geoff-Canada-style wraparound early childhood education and parenting programs. As he notes:
…the stimulus may not have made things much better, but it stopped them from getting much worse. Food stamps helped some families get enough to eat, teenagers got summer jobs, some tenants received help with their rent. A stimulus grant to the Chicago public schools helped pay for [a poor youth assistance] program…But it was, by definition, a temporary fix.
But in America, which isn’t Sweden, it’s particularly hard to imagine really attacking poverty, including its impact on kids, without doing a lot more to provide gainful, lasting, living wage employment for the parents—moms and dads—of poor children. Absent a strategy to accomplish that goal, I fear that all the parental counseling in the world won’t get us nearly far enough.