When It Comes to Economic Mobility, Family Matters

After nearly half a century spending trillions of dollars in the War on Poverty, the numbers show we’ve hardly made a dent.

If a lack of money is not to blame for the rise in poverty, what gives?

A number of leading welfare and public policy experts spanning the ideological spectrum gathered recently in Washington, D.C. to explore these vexing questions as Republicans prepare to control the White House and both houses of the U.S. Congress.

Hosted by Opportunity America, a think tank promoting economic mobility, the day-long conference featured a number of leading thinkers and public policy makers, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has called for bold thinking in the fight to reduce income inequality and chronic poverty.

Although the panelists differed on minor public policy questions, there was broad consensus that work, educational skills and family structure matter greatly when it comes to reducing poverty.

Ron Haskins, a scholar at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, was clearest in outlining a series of steps that would greatly reduce the chances of an individual ending up living in poverty.

“If you follow three rules: graduate from high school, get a job and continue working, get married and wait until you are 21 to start having babies, the probability that you will live in poverty in any given year is 2 percent,” said Haskins.

“If you violate all three of those rules,” he continued, “the probability that you will live in poverty in any given year of your life is over 75 percent.”

Haskins’ analysis is consistent with scholarly research that has found similar findings.

Still, knowing the rules and following them are two very different things. And there are often practical barriers to people escaping poverty. For example, how do single mothers pay for a major expense like childcare, which consumes almost as much income as housing?

“We cannot require single mothers to work and then not have anybody to take care of their children,” said Kiki Bradley, a consultant and former administrator of the nation’s largest cash welfare program at the Department of Health and Human Services. “Childcare and work go hand in hand. They have to happen.”

Child care emerged as a major public policy discussion in the most recent presidential election, with president-elect Donald Trump complaining that not enough has been done on this issue. “For many families, child care is now the single largest expense, even more so than housing,” he said in a September speech. “Yet very little policy work has been done in this area.”

Trump delivered that speech the same day his daughter Ivanka published an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, arguing for a child tax deduction for working-class families while calling for the creation of tax-free saving accounts that could be used to pay for child care services.

Republicans and Democrats attacked the proposal for different reasons, but among the major criticisms is that the proposal skewed benefits to the upper middle class and the affluent. Better to target government assistance to the truly needy, said panelist Angela Rachidi, a research fellow in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

If the federal government really wants to make a dent in reducing the cost of child care for working class mothers, a child tax credit falls well short, Rachidi said. To make a difference, Rachidi recommended increasing aid to working mothers to pay for child care to $5,000-$6,000 a year for the first few years of a child’s life.

After an election where income inequality loomed large, policymakers and the president-elect will have little choice to confront many of these thorny issues that don’t always break neatly across ideological lines.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter: @IzzyOrtega.