Obama is losing the war on poverty

Reihan Salam:
Rep. Paul Ryan has been drawing attention to rising poverty levels in the United States, per a new report from Tom Curry of NBC News:

“Next year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty. We’ve spent approximately $15 trillion and the question we ought to be asking ourselves is, ‘where are we?’ With a 15 percent poverty rate today — the highest in a generation — and with 46 million people in poverty, I would argue it’s not working very well.”
He said, “We shouldn’t be measuring our success in the war on poverty by inputs, by how much money we throw at programs, by how many people we enroll in programs; we ought to be measuring success in the War on Poverty by measuring how many people we get out of poverty…..”

This is exactly the right issue for Ryan to be working on. So far, Ryan has been reluctant to lay out a full-fledged anti-poverty agenda. Rather, he has been on an informal listening tour that, one hopes, will culminate in something more fleshed out. One thing that seems clear is that worklessness will have to be the focus of this agenda. Consider a new report from Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow that explores a variety of different anti-poverty strategies:

[W]e find that low-income households are disproportionately female, minority, and young. Most of these households have minor children at home, and many are headed by single parents. Their low incomes are partly due to their low wages, but even more to a lack of employment. Sixty percent of bottom-third household heads don’t work at all or work less than full time, while only 40 percent work full time (40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year or 2000 hours in total). In the upper two-thirds, 86 percent of household heads work full time. Another reason for the greater success of the upper two-thirds is that they are more likely to have two earners in the family. In short, and not surprisingly, a scarcity of second earners combined with a shortage of work hours and low pay rates keep the bottom third out of the middle class. However, the most important reason by far for the low incomes of these households is a lack of work. They are less likely to be employed and work fewer hours when they do hold a job. We refer to this as the “work gap.” 
We then do a series of simulations to determine what might help the bottom third improve their prospects and find that some of the work gap is related to the high unemployment rates that existed in 2011. Were the economy to return to full employment, the earnings of these low-income households would increase by 15 percent and the relative earnings gap between them and the upper two-thirds would narrow considerably. This 15 percent increase reflects the impact of a stronger economy on both the availability of work, including full-time work, and higher pay. While a full-employment economy will help this group of low-income households substantially, it will not move them very far up the ladder. Larger improvements in their economic status will require that they work more (even when jobs are available), obtain more education, and/or live in families with more working-age adults and/or fewer dependent children. [Emphasis added]

Getting macroeconomic policy right is clearly essential to an effective anti-poverty agenda. (This is an area where it’s not clear that Ryan is in the right place.) Sawhill and Karpilow also emphasize the importance of improving work incentives....
There is more.

This is an area where Democrats are vulnerable and is a proper focus for people like Paul Ryan.  He is stealing their issue by pointing out their failures.


  1. When a Lefty complains we don't have an exit strategy for a no-win war in Rinkydink and Tabasco, ask them what their exit strategy is for the War on Poverty. Be certain to bring plenty of duct tape for their heads.


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