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Opinion A bipartisan consensus on fighting poverty

When 15 experts, both liberal and conservative, agree on an agenda for fighting poverty, it is noteworthy. It is even more noteworthy when liberals accept the argument that conservatives have been advancing, namely:

Improving the family environment in which children are raised is vital to any serious effort to reduce poverty and expand opportunity. Twenty-five years of extensive and rigorous research has shown that children raised in stable, secure families have a better chance to flourish. Family structure is an important factor in reducing poverty, too: children raised in single-parent families are nearly five times as likely to be poor as those in married-couple families. . . . “Social policy faces an uphill battle,” says Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, “as long as families continue to fragment and children are deprived of the resources of two parents.

That’s from the second chapter in a new report (p. 30), “Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream,” put out by the American Enterprise Institute/Brookings Institution Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity.

This represents a remarkable intellectual and policy shift for liberals, who for decades have scorned the notion that marriage matters and have feigned offense at the notion that we should tell young, unmarried women to delay childbirth.

AEI’s Robert Doar, a member of the working group, was instrumental in bringing the scholars together. In his office in Washington, I asked him what prompted such a turnaround from liberals. “The data is too strong,” he said simply. “People who care about this have also gotten frustrated.” One need only take a drive through blocks of blighted neighborhoods in Baltimore, as I did recently, to appreciate the magnitude of the policy failure and the lack of hope that still afflicts a substantial portion of our citizenry. Doar says the recent riots in Baltimore and focus on widespread joblessness and poverty there were “humbling” for many who devoted their lives to fighting poverty.

Family, it turns out, is a critical part of the explanation for persistent poverty. The report is chock full of alarming and persuasive evidence explaining the rise of single-parent households (an astounding 72 percent of all African American births) and the correlation between children raised in single-parent homes and the lack of economic success and social mobility. “By 2013, at nearly $107,000, the average married-couple family with children had nearly three times the income of the average single-mother family with children.” (p. 21) The report goes on to conclude, “Some of the measures of child development that have been linked with single-parent families are higher high school drop out rates, lower academic achievement, higher rates of teen pregnancy, more alcohol and drug use, higher rates of psycho-social problems (including suicide) and higher likelihood of not working and not being in school in late adolescence and early adulthood.” The effect of single-parent households reverberates generationally, as those children grow up with reduced economic opportunity. (In recent testimony before the House Budget Committee, Doar provided research findings that 4 out of 5 children raised in households with married parents made it out of the bottom quintile of income. An alarming 50 percent of children from single parents in the bottom quintile stayed there, while only 5 percent made it to the top quintile.)

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The report, however, is very clear: Family structure is only part of the problem. “You need all three — family, work and education,” Doar says. The notion that a rising tide lifts all boats has been a mainstay on the right for decades. Certainly, the benefits of a growing economy cannot be understated. But decades of persistent poverty in bad times and good should convince reasonable minds that this is insufficient.

The AEI/Brookings report lays out a raft of policy suggestions in all three areas (family, work, education), ranging from promoting delayed, responsible childbearing to subsidizing work and increasing incentives to work (instead of remaining on government benefits) to school accountability and alternatives to four-year college.

This endeavor is neither easy nor cheap. The most effective programs, for example, in keeping teens in high school and encouraging delayed childbearing are “labor intensive,” Doar says. A popular approach to subsidizing work — expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit — requires both new resources (the report recommends increasing the maximum payment and expanding it to single adults with no children) as well as intensified efforts to eliminate fraud. If conservatives honestly want to attack the poverty problem, they will need to show willingness to pay for effective programs with concrete results.

As controversial as the emphasis on marriage may be, equally controversial is the effort to tie work to benefits. The report, for example, does not come out in favor of a work requirement for food stamps. Nevertheless, Doar thinks there is plenty of room for a middle ground between simply cutting checks and throwing people off benefits if they don’t get work in a defined time. These include work referral programs and workfare (whereby any beneficiary is offered some form of work before being taken off benefits). Even the simple requirement of coming in to see a case officer to discuss work prospects and job training can have a positive impact on recipients.

While the report diplomatically avoids mentioning it, conservatives can take credit for ending extension of long-term unemployment benefits, which liberals swore would increase suffering without leading to new employment. In fact, the unemployment rate has continued to drop since the federal government ceased subsidizing never-ending unemployment benefits, corroborating the importance of incentivizing work over government dependency.

The report is a remarkable achievement insofar as it provides political support and empirical data for an array of anti-poverty policies. Doar and his group will be sharing their report not only on Capitol Hill but also in state capitals. With House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — an advocate of many of the approaches the AEI/Brookings report recommends — now on the job, the potential for bipartisan legislation is real. His challenge will be to get fiscal conservatives willing to spend money on programs if they can be shown to be effective and can, in many instances, be funded at the federal level but run by the states.

Unfortunately, the current president has shown very little interest in departing from decades of liberal dogma — even as the thinking of conscientious liberals has matured. Real progress and policy innovation will have to await a new president. If a new president — of either party — and Congress would be open to the findings, data and recommendations assembled by both liberals and conservatives, we could accomplish something tangible in the anti-poverty war. If so, the AEI/Brookings report deserves credit for helping to foster the most important social policy shift since welfare reform.