Should we fight the “war on poverty” all over again?
Well, yes. That’s the recommendation of a group of liberal and conservative poverty scholars, who spent months discussing and arguing to see if they could find common ground. They did. Their new report – “Opportunity, Responsibility and Security” – lays out a plausible strategy for confronting poverty. The study was co-sponsored by the left-leaning Brookings Institution and the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
Recall that the first war on poverty, begun by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, fell far short. In 2014, the official poverty rate (the share of people under the government’s poverty line of cash income) was 14.8 percent, up slightly from 1966’s 14.7 percent. By some other measures, which include non-cash government benefits (food stamps, Medicaid), poverty has declined. But clearly, there are still lots of poor people.
In general, the group wants to make work more attractive to the poor. It proposed expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (the EITC is a wage subsidy, providing payments for workers up to designated income levels). It also backed a higher minimum wage.
To improve workers’ skills, the group urged that two-year and four-year colleges be publicly evaluated on their graduation rates and students’ job placements and wages (the idea is to steer students toward the most effective schools). The pro-work bias also asked more of the poor. It was suggested that some government benefits – food stamps, for example – be tied to a requirement that recipients work.
But there were cracks in the consensus. Although conservatives backed a higher minimum wage, they did so without providing a target. (President Obama has proposed raising the federal minimum from $7.25 an hour to $10.10, and some advocacy groups favor $15. Conservatives believe that higher minimums destroy jobs and that many workers receiving increases are already above the poverty line.)
The area of greatest agreement was the importance of two-parent families in raising children. “Mothers and children in single-mother families are five times as likely to be poor as those in two-parent families,” the report said. As well as being wealthier, two-parent families also offer – despite many exceptions – a more stable environment for children.
There’s the rub. Any assault on poverty collides with powerful social and economic forces that are undermining marriage and families. The report lays out the bleak facts, which include:
▪ Out-of-wedlock births are soaring among all major racial and ethnic groups. Among whites, the percentage of births to unmarried women went from 5.7 percent in 1970 to 35.9 percent in 2010; among Hispanics, the rise was from 36.7 percent (in 1980) to 53.4 percent; and among blacks, the increase was from 37.8 percent to 72.1 percent.
▪ Low-income men – especially blacks – are working less, and wages have stagnated for those with jobs. For black men aged 20 to 24, only half had jobs in 2013, down from a high of about 65 percent in the late 1980s.
Meanwhile, the wages of the poorest 50 percent of all men are “more or less what they had been in 1979.” By contrast, wages for the poorest half of women rose 35 percent over the same period.
▪ As a result, family structure has changed dramatically. In 1970, nearly four-fifths of women at age 35 were married with children, while slightly less than 10 percent were single with children – a ratio of 8-to-1. By 2010, the ratio was roughly 2.5-to-1, with about half of women married with children and 20 percent single with children. (The remaining women were without children, either married or single.)
There’s a vicious circle. With poor job and wage prospects, low-income men are less attractive as marriage partners. Women’s rise in wages makes it easier for them to survive alone, even if they’re relatively poor. More single-parent households then weaken children’s prospects, perpetuating intergenerational poverty.
To succeed, any new war on poverty must reverse these socially corrosive trends. At best, it would be a long and frustrating struggle.
Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.