Before I ask for a drumroll and reveal "the secrets" of fighting poverty, a bit of background:
For a quarter-century after World War II, the United States made great progress against poverty. Then in the 1970s, we fumbled. Over the last 35 years, our economy has almost tripled in size, but, according to the United States Census Bureau, the number of Americans living below the poverty line has been stuck at roughly 1 in 8.
One reason is that wages for blue-collar and other ordinary workers peaked in the early 1970s, after adjusting for inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A second is the breakdown in the family and the explosion in single-parent households. A third is the quintupling of incarceration rates beginning in 1970, making it harder for impoverished young men to play a role in families or get decent jobs.
When those factors converge - a young woman with a 10th-grade education trying to raise a couple of kids as a single parent - poverty proves almost inescapable. Often the cycle is transmitted from generation to generation.
Still, there's a reason for hope: We're getting a much better handle on what policies can overcome poverty. We're now seeing more experiments, modeled after randomized drug trials, that measure carefully whether an approach works and how cost-effective it is. Partly this reflects the rise of economists (at the expense of political scientists and do-gooders) and the rigor they pack in their briefcases.
"To make a difference, we have to do things that actually work," said Gordon Berlin, the president of MDRC, a research organization that pioneered the use of randomized trials to evaluate poverty-fighting strategies. "In the last 15 to 20 years, we've begun to build a compelling body of evidence that policy makers and program operators can act on."
Here's a peek at some of the interventions that seem to make a difference (and there are many more):
- High-quality early childhood programs, before kids get behind. Much-studied examples include the Perry Preschool program in Michigan in the 1960s and the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina in the 1970s. Both worked with impoverished children who had much better outcomes than control groups. For example, those who had been through the Perry program were - as adults, decades later - only half as likely to go on welfare and much less likely to be arrested.
- Intensive efforts in the ninth grade (which is well known as education's Bermuda triangle, swallowing up poor students). A program called Talent Development in Philadelphia gave ninth graders a double dose of math and English and reduced absenteeism and significantly improved performance for at least the next couple of years. Tentative results suggest it is also improving high school graduation rates.
- Career academies. These keep students engaged in high school by teaching around career themes and partnering with local employers to give kids work experience. Eight years of follow-up research suggests that graduates are more likely to hold jobs and earn more money.
- Jobs programs. One of the most successful is the "jobs-plus" demonstration, which trains people living in public housing to get jobs and gives them extra incentives to keep them. Participants thrive - and the gains continue even years later, after the program ends.
The two most important interventions seem to be education and jobs. Schooling programs pay off from early childhood all the way through community college. And jobs programs lift entire families: even though one might worry about children getting less supervision with parents working, studies suggest that children then do better at school.
All this underscores a long-term cost of this recession: there are cuts in both education and schooling, harming the two most effective stairways out of poverty. That's tragic, and I hope we consider schooling and jobs every bit as important as our multibillion-dollar surge in Afghanistan.
In effect, what's needed to overcome poverty in part seems to be a change of culture, to break self-destructive behaviors - resignation to unemployment, self-doubt, alcohol and drug abuse, disintegrating families, lack of engagement in children's education - that create self-replicating cycles of poverty. The Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy, a charter school where third graders from a disadvantaged neighborhood outperform their peers around New York City and New York State, offers a shining example of what is possible.
This wave of research suggests that there's no magic bullet, that helping people is hard, and that even when pilot programs succeed they can be difficult to scale up. But evidence also suggests that we increasingly have the tools to chip away at poverty. We know what to do if we just can summon the political will.