Building on the Success of the War on Poverty

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by Cory Booker,

from The Wall Street Journal,

The government’s half-century of effort has slashed poverty rates. It’s time to strengthen and scale up what works.

… in everything from health care to criminal justice, the continuing problem of spending too much money and not getting the results we want in return.

In America, tragically, social mobility is flat or, by some measures, actually declining: If you are born poor, you are likely to stay poor. This fact contradicts the very concept of America, deprives us of the genius of our people, damages our economy and threatens our way of life.

Against this backdrop, we are now having a debate over the War on Poverty, marking the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 speech.

Data, not stultifying political or ideological rhetoric, must drive our agenda. So let’s be clear on the facts. The federal government’s half-century of effort has slashed poverty among seniors from 35% in 1960 to 9% in 2011; it has brought so-called “deep poverty” (those living 50% below the poverty line) down to 5.3%; and it has cut overall poverty by a third, when you factor in tax credits and other payments, according to a recent report by the Council of Economic Advisers.

We must dispense with the false choice between pursuing fiscal responsibility and funding programs to help the poor. Instead, we should be focused on outcomes and substantive cost-benefit analyses. So how do we best leverage societal investment for maximum return?

Take food stamps. A 2010 National Academy of Sciences study found that it lifted four million people out of poverty. But those dollars also “ripple throughout the economies of the community, state and nation,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which also found that “every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates a total of $9 in community spending.”

But I believe we have a profound opportunity: Fifty years after the War on Poverty began, we can greatly advance our common cause if we recommit to policies that have been successful and update our approach, based on the evidence of what works and what doesn’t.

Universal pre-K is a must.

Whether a child grows up in a two-parent home is one of the top predictors of social mobility.

As mayor, I saw countless families broken apart and economically hobbled when one parent went to jail for a nonviolent drug offense. We can save taxpayer money and keep families together by reforming our ineffective criminal-justice system.

In terms of anti-poverty impact and return on investment, few programs surpass at-home nursing initiatives designed to serve low-income, first-time mothers. A study funded by the Pew Center estimated that the returns of such programs exceed $73,000 over the life of a child. Other studies have shown marked reductions in crime, child abuse and other problems, including infant death rates.

For young people entering the workforce, apprenticeships are a great way to close the skills gap and to increase lifetime earnings—by up to $300,000. But the U.S. had just 358,000 active, registered apprenticeships in 2012—a tiny fraction compared with other industrialized countries. We should expand private-sector-led apprenticeship strategies similar to those in South Carolina, which saw a 580% increase in apprenticeships in recent years.

Significantly reducing poverty isn’t a question of whether we can—it is a question of whether we have the collective will.

I welcome a broad conversation about poverty and social mobility, but the balance sheet is indisputable after a half-century of the War on Poverty. We need to do more, not less.

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