Fighting poverty with opportunity

(Flickr / Garrett Gill)

(Flickr / Garrett Gill)

“Poverty is changing, and policy responses must change too,” argues an important recent report published by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute and the left-leaning Brookings Institution.

The document — the product of a bipartisan group of top scholars — combines political diversity with shared values to make a dozen recommendations for strengthening families, work, and education in the United States.

The two think tanks in 2014 formed a working group on poverty and opportunity evenly balanced between conservatives and progressives, “drawing on principles designed to maximize civility, trust, and open-mindedness.”

“The only way forward, we believe, is to work together,” the group declares in the report’s executive summary. “No side has a monopoly on the truth, but each side can block legislative action.”

The first step is defining the problem. Though the official poverty measure shows only a small decline in poverty in the last 50 years, alternative poverty measures show declines of close to 10 percentage points — though there is still work to be done.

Despite decreases in the poverty rate, economic mobility has been difficult to improve over the last several years. All major age groups have seen a steep decline in marriage, while births to unmarried women have been increasing – especially among minorities.

Men have seen declining employment rates, which have generally fallen since 1980. In general, women’s real wages have grown much more quickly than men’s as well, so much so that the report notes, “the wages of men at the 50th percentile and below are now similar to or lower than they were in 1979.”

To promote marriage and delayed childbearing, the authors recommend a public information campaign supported by leaders around the country. Among college graduates, the unmarried birth rate is drastically lower.

“We should not be afraid to practice what we preach,” the report concludes. Waiting to have children until married will improve economic mobility and community stability for the most vulnerable.

But changing the culture will take a long time, and the working group recognizes that this isn’t a simple change. In the meantime, we need policies that make it possible for “nonresident fathers” (who have children but don’t live in the same household) to escape the cycle of poverty as well. Large fines for overdue child support payments are often levied against low-income men, which can make it harder for them to save money and invest in additional education or a new career. The report recommends implementing more parenting programs for fathers and changing the penalties for child support payments when men are financially unable to pay.

Educational attainment is crucial for improving economic mobility. States have tried several partnerships or initiatives to improve access to education or job-specific training for low-income people, but the results have been mixed at best.

Work-based learning and apprenticeships have proved immensely successful among people who are not planning to attend college. The report advocates additional tax incentives for these programs as well as increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for working childless individuals, a policy embraced by both Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and President Barack Obama.

Encouraging schools to innovate and be creative in approaches to improving education is a key to improving educational outcomes and reducing the education gap between rich and poor. The government needs to give charter schools the freedom to try new approaches and families the freedom to choose their schools.

“Despite the evidence that some individual high-poverty schools can be turned around, the best evidence for a strategy that is effective, scalable, and supported by reformers on the left and right is school socioeconomic integration via public school choice,” the authors note.

The report continuously stresses the importance of creating more job opportunities and economic growth, as well as finding ways for people to engage in productive activity even if they can’t find a job.

“It’s important that some kind of work opportunity — or at least a work-related activity or constructive pursuits such as education or work preparation — be available to anyone who faces loss of income support for failing to meet a work requirement,” the report argues.

Published on Opportunity Lives

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