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Opinion: Poverty at historic low, but Dems bringing it back

Sep 15, 2021


I want to speak to you today as a veteran social services administrator. For almost 20 years before I came to AEI, I worked in state and city social services programs in New York. And during that time I learned something few of our leaders in Washington want you to know: poverty, as it has been historically defined by the United States, is almost non-existent in our country.

Since bipartisan welfare reform in the 1990s, our safety net has helped millions of Americans get the income they need to support their families with resources that are greater than the amount needed to be considered above the poverty line. 

Properly measured, poverty rates have reached historic lows. 

Scholars at the University of Chicago and Notre Dame have shown that as of 2018, the consumption poverty rate, which measures the share of low-income Americans unable to get the basic resources they need, was just below 3.0%, down from 10.8% in 1990.

Child poverty, properly measured, has also plummeted from 16.1% in 1990 to 3.7% in 2018, a decrease equivalent to 7.6 million fewer children living in poverty.

The reason behind this success is clear to me.

Bipartisan welfare reform made employment the highest priority for struggling Americans, creating new incentives and requirements for the chronically unemployed to enter the labor force. 

These reforms emphasized the importance of work and the earnings that come from a job. 

But employment has benefits for families that go far beyond income. It enhances human dignity and provides children with resources and examples that will help them move up. 

A recent study at Harvard concluded, “What predicts upward mobility is not proximity to jobs, but growing up around people who have jobs.”

Still, governmental support is often necessary and useful to get struggling people into the labor force.

Since welfare reform, tax credits and benefits have provided essential resources to families in need and helped make upward mobility possible.

Childcare provisions and public health insurance have helped more struggling parents get into the workforce to support their families.

So, our successful approach combined work and support to put families on the path out of poverty. 

The results—record low poverty rates for Americans and their children, as well as improved access to healthcare and housing—are clear to anyone who really looks.

Still given what we hear in the mainstream media and popular culture, this talk about ending poverty must be hard to believe. After all, politicians and policy experts—from the left, right, and center—never talk about these successes. Instead, we hear constant pessimism about the failure of the War on Poverty, and how, in the words of Senator Bernie Sanders, “Poverty in America has become a death sentence.”

Like Senator Sanders, Democrats ignore what we’ve accomplished in order to justify ever greater spending. 

They can also score political points by portraying their opponents as heartless, saying that Republicans leave the poor out in the cold and deny them the aid they need. 

Democrats are not alone in their pessimism.

Republicans disparage the safety net too, casting doubts on the necessity of large, expensive welfare programs. 

After all, if we’ve spent trillions and failed to improve poverty, why should we keep spending on these ineffective programs? 

But the reality is that we have made substantial progress, and our spending on employment supports and tax credits for low-income workers has increased employment and earnings and reduced poverty. 

Of course, there’s a lot of work to be done beyond poverty reduction. Just because someone and their family are out of poverty, doesn’t mean they’re not struggling. They are. 

Policymakers now need to focus on helping these struggling Americans move up, by helping them get greater skills, encouraging job creation and economic development. 

Unfortunately, Democrats in Congress and the White House are advancing an economic agenda that will not only fail to accomplish that, but also tear down the successful system we’ve had since the 1990s.

The Democrats’ monthly cash benefits to parents, paid by the IRS, undermines the focus on responsibility and accountability that has been integral to our success.

No longer will struggling parents need to find work or engage with state or local social workers to get their benefits. 

They will just get a check from Washington for each child they have, regardless of whether they are working or the circumstances of their home.

Democratic leaders in Washington have given up on work as the key to reducing poverty. 

Instead of recognizing the successes of our system, they’re destroying it. This reckless approach will lead to higher unemployment, less economic mobility, and potentially, the return of the level of poverty like we have not seen in years.

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