A New Direction in the War on Poverty

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by Paul Ryan,

from The Wall Street Journal,

It’s time to for a new approach.

Mrs. Louisa, [“Lulu”, is] one of five youth advisers in Pulaski High’s Violence-Free Zone program. Along with program head Andre Robinson and site supervisor Naomi Perez, they work as a band of roving mentors. On a typical day, you’ll find them walking the halls in black polo shirts. They chat with students, break up fights and help with homework. Most of them are recent alumni who grew up in the inner city, and they have the scars to prove it. They’ve been part of gangs. They’ve seen violence firsthand.

But they don’t have education degrees or state certification. They have something more important: credibility. The youth advisers understand what the students are going through because they’ve had the same struggles. That credibility creates trust, and so the students listen to them. In the two years since the program started, suspensions at Pulaski High are down by 60%, and daily attendance is up by nearly 10%. Fourteen gangs used to roam the school grounds; today, they’ve all but disappeared. The school tried all sorts of things to keep students safe—more police presence, more cameras.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. For years, politicians have pointed to the money they’ve spent or the programs they’ve created. But despite trillions of dollars in spending, 47 million Americans still live in poverty today. And the reason is simple: Poverty isn’t just a form of deprivation; it’s a form of isolation. Crime, drugs and broken families are dragging down millions of Americans. On every measure from education levels to marriage rates, poor families are drifting further away from the middle class.

And Washington is deepening the divide. Over the past 50 years, the federal government has created different programs to fix different problems, so there’s little or no coordination among them. And because these programs are means-tested—meaning that families become ineligible for them as they earn more—poor families effectively face very high marginal tax rates, in some cases over 80%. So the government actually discourages them from getting ahead.

What the poor really need is to be reintegrated into our communities. But Washington is walling them up in a massive quarantine.

On this less-than-golden anniversary, we should renew the fight. The federal government needs to take a comprehensive view of the problem. It needs to dump decades-old programs and give poor families more flexibility. It needs to let communities like Pulaski High develop their own solutions. And it needs to remember that the best anti-poverty program is economic growth.

Here’s a look at some of the latest advances in the fight against poverty.

• In welfare, rely on simplicity and standards. In 2012, Great Britain approved a far-reaching reform called the Universal Credit. The government is now putting this idea into practice, and it’s going through a rough patch. But the basic concept is sound. Britain collapsed six means-tested programs into one overall payment. And unlike the old programs, which abruptly cut off once a family made a certain amount of money, the Universal Credit tapers off gradually. But the payment isn’t a giveaway. Every recipient, except the disabled, must either have a job or be actively looking for one.

• In 1996, Congress required people on welfare to work, and the results were encouraging. Child-poverty rates fell by double digits. The trouble is, we haven’t applied this principle far enough.

• In education, give teachers more control, and give parents a choice. Some of the most exciting work in education has occurred in Indiana.

• Before the reforms, union-negotiated contracts required teachers to earn compensation based on seniority, not performance, and the contracts dictated all aspects of the classroom experience, from the humidity level in the school to the number of hours a teacher must spend with students. Under the new laws, teachers’ pay is based on performance. In exchange, they have more control over the classroom. Low-income families are also now eligible for tuition vouchers.

• In job training, put people who need jobs with people who create them. The problem with federal job-training programs is that they often train workers for jobs that don’t exist.

• Gov. Scott Walker (R., Wis.) started the Wisconsin Fast Forward initiative, which will allow employers, rather than the state, to develop job-training programs.

• Other areas ripe for reform include health care, criminal justice and federal regulations. After all, the cultural antibodies that heal communities are already present and hard at work.

For 50 years, we’ve been going in the wrong direction, and liberals want to march on. Some in Washington insist that you’re concerned for the poor only if you’re committed to a path that has failed the poor. But the question isn’t whether we should do more or less of the same. It is which new direction will work best.

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