Conservative reformers such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) argue that anti-poverty programs need to be transformed from a one-size-fits-all series of federal wealth transfers to a more holistic approach that focuses on individuals’ specific needs and that aims to end dependency. Liberals look askance at this notion, suspecting that it is some sort of excuse for not spending more at the federal level. But, in fact, if we focus on outcomes, the biggest successes are those programs customized and administered at the state and local level that encourage aid recipients to become productive workers.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Robert Doar, who ran New York City’s anti-poverty programs under two mayors, knows this from personal experience. Commenting on Ryan’s plan, he stated: “As a former state administrator, I like that he is offering states, through his Opportunity Grant, greater flexibility and a way to combine funding streams to come up with solutions designed for the particular circumstances of the people we are trying to help. Too often our solutions are restricted by the particular demands of a narrow program designed in Washington.” He dispels the notion that this is simply liberalism-lite: “As conservatives who are properly skeptical of what government can accomplish, we need to be careful as we engage in discussions on poverty policy that we not lose sight of the importance of the individual and the community in helping people in need. So it’s ok to offer a better federal government solution but we should be sure not to couch in it the language of the left that always promises far more than government can really deliver. The key to success will always be to create an environment where individuals can work and move up economically based on their own efforts, because it is only in earning success that one really escapes poverty.”

That gets to the nub of the difference between liberals and conservatives on this topic. For the left, fighting poverty means giving people stuff (primarily money); it’s a problem of resources. What they do when resources run out isn’t an issue, in part, because the goal is not independence but relief from physical deprivation (e.g. poor housing, insufficient food). Conservatives, however, see poverty as the result of behaviors (out-of-marriage children, absent fathers, school dropouts) that are counterproductive and keep people from earned success (enjoying the spiritual and economic rewards of work). Since liberals fear that this amounts to “judging” or “blaming” the poor, they are often loath to direct their energies to help people change habits of behavior and reprioritize their goals.

David Brooks calls this a matter of “character.” (“Social research over the last decade or so has reinforced the point that would have been self-evident in any other era — that if you can’t help people become more resilient, conscientious or prudent, then all the cash transfers in the world will not produce permanent benefits.”) That, I fear, will really turn off liberals, since it implies that the poor have “low” character. In fact, what Brooks describes boils down to making behavioral changes of the type Ryan and other conservative reformers recommend. (“If you can change behavior you eventually change disposition. People who practice small acts of self-control find it easier to perform big acts in times of crisis. Quality preschools, K.I.P.P. schools and parenting coaches have produced lasting effects by encouraging young parents and students to observe basic etiquette and practice small but regular acts of self-restraint.”)

Whatever you call it, the results of anti-poverty programs should be subject to study, analysis and measurement. We can’t keep measuring success by the dollars flowing into these programs. That’s a measure of how much poverty we have. Rather, we need to attend to the numbers of people returning to work, the number of degrees obtained by former recipients, the family income of former recipients five or 10 years down the road and the rate of recidivism (drug or alcohol addiction relapse) and re-incarceration. In business-speak, what you don’t measure, you can’t manage or improve.

The task for anti-poverty advocates is first to admit that what we’ve done hasn’t worked and then agree on the goals (e.g. independence) and the best ways to assess results. Then, let a thousand programs bloom. The best can be duplicated and refined, the others discarded. This is hard and time-consuming work, but if we really care about reducing poverty, it’s the only honest approach.