How to Fight Poverty–and Win

Dear Deborah,

Thanks for the opportunity to debate the critical issues in education and social policy with you. You are an icon and a hero, and it’s been a true honor.

Someday I’d like to write a book on anti-poverty efforts, and I hope it might have the title above. Understanding that my knowledge about this vast topic is still limited, here’s a first cut at the basic outline. I think you’ll agree that there are quite a few items on the list about which we can agree.

Introduction: A smart anti-poverty strategy starts with three principles:

1. Think intergenerationally.

We’d all like to see greater social mobility in America, but we need to be realistic about what’s achievable. It’s never been the case that many of the poorest Americans have gone from rags to riches over the course of their own lives. More common has been an intergenerational story: The penniless, uneducated immigrant arrives at Ellis Island and then lands in an urban slum. But then, via hard work and sacrifice (and, in some cases, help from the government or from trade unions), he gets a foothold in the economy, makes sure his own children learn English and do well in school, and ensures they make it into the great American middle class. And the third generation climbs even higher.

Poverty, by this telling, isn’t such a problem if it’s temporary. What’s crushing, and deeply offensive to American values, is intergenerational poverty–poverty that never seems to go away. And sure enough, studies demonstrate that it’s individuals who spend most of their childhoods poor whose outcomes are the worst. It’s not great to be temporarily poor, but it’s not terribly harmful, either. Our task, then, is to help the children of the poor find their foothold in the middle class. Some may rocket all the way to real affluence, but most won’t. Let’s start by ending the cycle of poverty.

2. Understand that it’s (mostly) not about money.

Let me stipulate that income poverty brings plenty of hardship. But in America, it’s the pathologies that are associated with poverty that are so damaging to children, not necessary the lack of financial means itself. If it was just about income inequality, we could go back to a traditional welfare system, beef up the Earned Income Tax Credit, or significantly boost the minimum wage and see a significant increase in the upward mobility of the children of the poor. But what if it’s mostly about the other pieces: Growing up in a single-parent family, without the involvement of your father, with a mother who is young and relatively uneducated, who struggles to find or keep work, who cycles through multiple boyfriends with whom she has additional children? Untangling this web of dysfunction is going to take a lot more than transfer payments. (See the great book What Money Can’t Buy for more on this theme.)

3. The most promising strategies combine personal responsibility with external support.

There’s no doubt that people living in poverty need help, including help from the government. But every intervention with a chance of success–from teenage pregnancy prevention, to education, to prenatal care–requires a significant measure of personal effort. Yes, it’s unfair that the children of affluence can glide through life without much striving and still do OK. C’est la vie. But for poor kids to overcome the gravitational pull of poverty, much of the propulsion is going to need to come from within. Smart policies can encourage this–or at least get out of the way.

So with the table now set, let’s look at specific interventions worth supporting.

1. Encourage teenagers to follow the “success sequence.”

Thinking intergenerationally, we should obsess about the generation yet to come: The babies soon to be born to poor teenagers. As Isabel Sawhill, Ron Haskins, and many others have argued before, the best thing we can do is encourage teens to delay childbearing until they’ve finished their education (at least through high school–some higher ed would be even better); acquired a full-time job; and gotten married. If they do that, they are extremely unlikely to be poor, and their children are unlikely to be poor.

A full-court press would include

• Making birth control free and widely available–longer-lasting methods are best (see this promising experiment in St. Louis);
• Implementing evidence-based teenage-pregnancy-prevention programs (I’m partial to the Teen Outreach Program, run by the Wyman Center, also in St. Louis);
• Giving teens a reason to delay childbearing by showing them a clear path to college or a good-paying career (more on that below);
• Reducing the marriage disincentives that are still baked into our tax code and transfer policies; and
• Providing financial incentives to follow the success sequences, such as the “25K by 25” idea I floated earlier.

2. Provide intensive support from zero to five–while holding parents accountable for doing their part.

Individuals who follow the success sequence are generally going to be in a much better place to care for their kids, as they will be older, wealthier, and married when tackling the challenge of raising infants and toddlers. But what about those who don’t follow the success sequence? They are going to need a lot of help, and possibly some tough love to boot.

Ideas include the following:

• Providing high-quality prenatal care and home visitations for poor women. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the Nurse-Family Partnership program, and for good reason.
• Prosecuting women who endanger their unborn children. A handful of states have laws on the books that make it a crime for women to abuse alcohol or drugs while pregnant. They might go a step further and demand that women receive prenatal care or face prosecution or the loss of their custody rights once their babies are born.
•Experimenting with parenting classes. This idea is hot right now, but by my lights it has more promise than evidence. It’s still worth trying, though–especially efforts to teach parents to talk to their babies and otherwise develop their cognitive abilities.

3. Make the education system as effective as humanly possible.

As I’ve argued throughout our dialogue, Deborah, schools are the indispensable anti-poverty program. That’s partly because they are more under the control of the public than anything else on this list–and partly because the only way to end the cycle of poverty is to help poor children see a clear path to college or a good paying career and, thus, to follow the success sequence. And who better to light that path than our schools?

An abbreviated to-do list includes the following:

• Creating high-quality preschool programs, starting at age 3, that are targeted at low-income children. To be most effective, these programs need to support the healthy development of young children but especially their cognitive development, particularly their vocabulary.
• Continuing with a robust K-12 program that includes a rigorous, content-rich curriculum (like Core Knowledge) and talented, well-trained teachers.
• Ensuring that students–especially low-income students–have an opportunity to be challenged every day and not shying away from ability grouping or tracking as a means to help the most promising students achieve their full potential.
• Tapping all of the educational resources in a community, including high-quality Catholic and other private schools (via voucher or tax-credit programs), as well as high-quality charter schools. We don’t have nearly enough high-impact schools in high-poverty areas; why rule out any of the ones we do have?
• Renewing our commitment to multiple pathways to the middle class, including high-quality career and technical high schools.

That’s quite a list. It’s no magic prescription,  of course, nor are any of these ideas particularly new. The devil is always in the details–in implementation and follow-through. (You’ll note a lot of overlap between my recommendations and those in Diane Ravitch’s new book. I’ve criticized Diane–not for supporting these anti-poverty efforts but for pretending that they are easier to implement, or less complex and uncertain, than the school-reform agenda.)

There’s plenty in this outline to offend people on the right and left. So be it. Time’s a wasting. What do you think, Deborah? Shall we give this a serious try?

I look forward to staying in touch.

– Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on Education Week’s Bridging Differences blog, where Mike Petrilli has been debating Deborah Meier.

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