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Americans are frustrated that too little progress is being made in reducing poverty and expanding opportunity. In a recent AEI/Los Angeles Times survey, 70 percent of Americans said they believe the conditions for the poor had either stayed the same or gotten worse over the past 10 or 15 years, and 60 percent believe that most poor people will probably remain in poverty. Clearly the promise of upward mobility has not felt like a reality for many families stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder. In fact, one study from Pew Charitable Trusts found that 43 percent of Americans born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution remain there as adults, and more than 20 percent of children lived in poverty in 2014.
To be sure, the official poverty rate is a flawed metric because it does not consider a significant amount of government-provided assistance that raises many families’ incomes above the poverty line. Better measures of poverty show that we have made progress in reducing material hardship, and experts from the left and right agree that the poor today are better off materially than in the past.
But they are better off largely because of government assistance, not because they are working or earning more on their own—and therein lies the current dissatisfaction. Poverty fighters across the political spectrum have consistently said that helping low-income Americans achieve sufficient earnings should be the goal of our antipoverty efforts. The AEI/Los Angeles Times survey found that more than half of Americans living in poverty said that the main purpose of welfare programs should be helping poor people get back on their feet again, not simply providing for their material needs.
Thankfully, most mainstream leaders understand the key principles of a better approach. Able-bodied adults need to work because steady employment almost always leads a family out of poverty, provides opportunities for upward mobility, and is a source of dignity and purpose. Children are best off when they are raised by two committed parents, which is most likely to happen in marriage. And society must maintain a safety net that reduces material hardship, ensures that children can be raised in healthy environments, and rewards individuals who work.
However, translating these principles into effective public policy and detailed legislation is a difficult task. My hope is that this volume will be a useful resource for those trying to do just that. In the pages that follow, we have brought together academics and practitioners with decades of experience studying and implementing the crucial federal programs that assist low-income Americans. Each essay will discuss a program’s history, what research and personal experience show about its effects, and one expert’s view of how to help it work better.
Of course, not all of the problems facing low-income Americans will be solved by federal antipoverty programs. But political reality dictates that these major programs are not going to disappear anytime soon, meaning leaders who are serious about helping poor Americans should learn how they work and develop an agenda for improving them. Moreover, many of these assistance programs do reduce poverty and, with thoughtful reform, could be even more effective in helping struggling Americans move up. This volume intends to help policymakers understand how each program functions—its strengths, as well as its weaknesses.
Policymakers have an important responsibility, along with the rest of civil society, to develop a safety net that works and better helps poor Americans increase their earnings. When President Johnson declared our nation’s “war on poverty,” he defined our task as striving to “replace despair with opportunity.” While none of the authors presented here have all the answers, I hope these analyses and proposals can help us move toward finally living up to that mission.
Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies
“The Earned Income Tax Credit”
Bruce D. Meyer
“Viewing the Food Stamp Program Through a 44-Year Lens”
James C. Capretta
“Empowering Child Support Enforcement to Reduce Poverty”
“Reducing Poverty by Reforming Housing Policy”
Edgar O. Olsen
“Child Welfare: In Search of Lasting Reform”
“Temporary Assistance for Needy Families”
“The Supplemental Security Income Disabled Children Program: Improving Employment Outcomes in Adulthood”
Richard V. Burkhauser and Mary C. Daly
“Child Care Assistance in the United States”
“WIC’s Expanding Eligibility, Rather Than Enhanced Services”
Douglas J. Besharov and Douglas M. Call
“Improving Our Federal Response to Homelessness”
Kevin C. Corinth
“Federal Early Childhood Care and Education Programs: Advancing Opportunity Through Early Learning”
Katharine B. Stevens
“We can and must reform our government programs to expand opportunities for poor Americans. A Safety Net That Works offers important guidance for those seeking to enact pro-work, pro-family policies that can help all Americans reach their God-given potential and achieve the American dream.”
—Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)
“Washington’s fight against poverty has often lacked three powerful forces: accountability, pragmatism, and innovation. A Safety Net That Works aims to inject more of each into federal policy—and it’s a mission that’s as urgent as it is timely.”
—Michael Bloomberg, former mayor, New York City
“The papers in this volume are well-written, thoughtful, and timely, providing the reader with important background on safety net programs and useful ideas for reform. Though the authors are mostly (but not exclusively) from a center-right political perspective, the volume should be valuable reading for anyone with poverty and policy interests.”
—Harry J. Holzer, John LaFarge Jr. SJ Professor, McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University
“A Safety Net That Works shows a way forward for policymakers who hope to encourage work among low-income Americans and help them move up. Its authors step away from the current command-and-control federal program system to recommend changes that promote personal accountability and choice and recognize the importance of long-term national fiscal health.”
—Jason Turner, executive director, Secretaries’ Innovation Group
Robert Doar is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
To request a physical copy of the book, please contact [email protected].
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A newsletter highlighting work on poverty—and efforts to reduce it—from AEI’s Poverty Studies team.
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