Progress in the war on poverty
America’s war on poverty turned 50 years old this week, and plenty of people have concluded that, as President Ronald 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.
The most accurate measures, using Census Bureau figures that take account of benefits, suggest that poverty rates have fallen by more than one-third since 1968. There’s a consensus that without the war on poverty, other forces (such as mass incarceration, a rise in single mothers and the decline in trade unions) would have lifted poverty much higher.
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.
In contrast, children are voiceless, so they are the age group most likely to be poor today. That’s a practical and moral failure.
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 past 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.
Early education likewise has strong evidence of impact. Critics note that in Head Start, for example, gains in IQ seem to fade within a few years. That’s true and disappointing. But in the past five years, robust studies from scholars like David Deming have shown that graduates of Head Start also have improved life outcomes: better higher high school graduation and college attendance rates, and less likely to be out of school and out of a job.
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.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.