Cory Booker: Building on the Success of the War on Poverty

2.12.14 War on Poverty


Story provided by The Wall Street Journal – 

In my three months as a senator, I have already seen firsthand that partisan debates in Washington can distract us from uniting around common-sense actions to address our most urgent needs. I always try to remember the old African saying: “When there is a snake in the hut, there is no need to debate its color.”

Two of the interrelated dangers we face today include an underperforming economy and, in everything from health care to criminal justice, the continuing problem of spending too much money and not getting the results we want in return.

Our national investment strategy is hardly a strategy at all. We are failing to invest in areas that not only produce great social returns but also reduce federal spending in the long run. Most glaring of all, we’ve got our priorities wrong: We are failing to maximize the productivity of our greatest natural resource—our people.

In America, tragically, social mobility is flat or, by some measures, actually declining: If you are born poor, you are likely to stay poor. This fact contradicts the very concept of America, deprives us of the genius of our people, damages our economy and threatens our way of life.

Against this backdrop, we are now having a debate over the War on Poverty, marking the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 speech. Listening to pundits and politicians over the past month, I’ve felt that too much of the discussion has been fueled by our partisan divide and has failed to unite us around actually addressing the pressing crisis of poverty.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to hear more people talking about poverty. But we can’t fall prey to the debilitating simplicities of our seemingly binary political world.

Data, not stultifying political or ideological rhetoric, must drive our agenda. So let’s be clear on the facts. The federal government’s half-century of effort has slashed poverty among seniors from 35% in 1960 to 9% in 2011; it has brought so-called “deep poverty” (those living 50% below the poverty line) down to 5.3%; and it has cut overall poverty by a third, when you factor in tax credits and other payments, according to a recent report by the Council of Economic Advisers.

A child in West Virginia in 1964, photographed by Bruce Davidson. That year, in Lyndon B. Johnson’s first State of the Union address, the new president declared ‘unconditional war on poverty in America.’ Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

Continuing our fight against poverty—an endeavor that President Johnson rightly warned would be long and difficult—is fiscally responsible. If we are going to have a real conversation about it, we must abandon the rigid ideological view that, simply by virtue of being a government initiative, the Great Society was a failure.

We must dispense with the false choice between pursuing fiscal responsibility and funding programs to help the poor. Instead, we should be focused on outcomes and substantive cost-benefit analyses. So how do we best leverage societal investment for maximum return?

As mayor of Newark, it always frustrated me to see constant assaults on initiatives—from food stamps to Medicaid expansion—that keep so many New Jersey families out of the quicksand of poverty and make financial sense.

Take food stamps—formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A 2010 National Academy of Sciences study found that it lifted four million people out of poverty. But those dollars also “ripple throughout the economies of the community, state and nation,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which also found that “every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates a total of $9 in community spending.”

I’m sure many Americans share my frustration and worry about whether their federal government feels a sense of urgency on poverty. The failure to extend unemployment insurance is the current case in point.

But I believe we have a profound opportunity: Fifty years after the War on Poverty began, we can greatly advance our common cause if we recommit to policies that have been successful and update our approach, based on the evidence of what works and what doesn’t. There are many sound ideas, ranging from addressing the educational needs of our children to stimulating more investment and entrepreneurship in pockets of urban poverty. Here are just a few.

In a global, knowledge-based economy, the genius of our children is our nation’s greatest asset. Universal pre-K is a must: Based just on cost-benefit analysis, the evidence is overwhelming. We know that every dollar spent on high-quality early education returns roughly $7—through reduced spending on social services, as well as higher earning and productivity for participants as adults.

In focusing on kids, we must be willing to confront some uncomfortable truths. Whether a child grows up in a two-parent home is one of the top predictors of social mobility. This doesn’t mean that we demean single-parent households. But we should focus on proven strategies that empower couples to stay together (like eliminating the marriage penalty in the Earned Income Tax Credit) and better support single parents (like raising the federal minimum wage).

As mayor, I saw countless families broken apart and economically hobbled when one parent went to jail for a nonviolent drug offense. We can save taxpayer money and keep families together by reforming our ineffective criminal-justice system. For instance, re-entry programs that help former prisoners move quickly toward training and work have been shown to produce profound benefits, with significant reductions in recidivism and future taxpayer expenditures.

In terms of anti-poverty impact and return on investment, few programs surpass at-home nursing initiatives designed to serve low-income, first-time mothers. A study funded by the Pew Center estimated that the returns of such programs exceed $73,000 over the life of a child. Other studies have shown marked reductions in crime, child abuse and other problems, including infant death rates.

For young people entering the workforce, apprenticeships are a great way to close the skills gap and to increase lifetime earnings—by up to $300,000. But the U.S. had just 358,000 active, registered apprenticeships in 2012—a tiny fraction compared with other industrialized countries. We should expand private-sector-led apprenticeship strategies similar to those in South Carolina, which saw a 580% increase in apprenticeships in recent years.

The above examples give me hope that we can cut through the old false debates. We’ve proved, through strategic investments, that we can tackle poverty by empowering people to succeed—and save taxpayer dollars in the long run.

What excites me about being a senator is the opportunity to strengthen and scale up these common-sense programs through federal investments, public-private partnerships and incentives. Significantly reducing poverty isn’t a question of whether we can—it is a question of whether we have the collective will.

I welcome a broad conversation about poverty and social mobility, but the balance sheet is indisputable after a half-century of the War on Poverty. We need to do more, not less.

But doing more doesn’t mean wasteful and indiscriminate spending. Doing more means making smart investments in proven programs and innovating around promising new strategies.

We have a historic opportunity today to lift millions out of poverty, to limit government spending in the long term and to create middle-class jobs. Doing so isn’t just a moral imperative; it will also profoundly improve our global competitiveness and the economic security of American families. As that African saying goes, the snake is in the hut; it is now time for us to act on the urgent challenges before us.

Sen. Booker, a Democrat, represents New Jersey and is the former mayor of Newark.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

Gravatar Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s