When Just One Leg Up Isn’t Enough

Two-generation anti-poverty programs, which combine self-sufficiency initiatives for poor parents and early childhood education for their kids, have been around since the early 1990s but are recently making a comeback. These programs address a catch-22 that many struggling parents face: in order to build their careers, they must spend more time away from home, but they struggle to find and afford quality childcare, forcing them to stay home and stay poor. Alana Semuels profiles one two-generation program in Atlanta that has proven remarkably successful:

The Dunbar Learning Complex is a calm and bright space in the otherwise blighted streets of Mechanicsville. There, children receive free schooling, from infancy to pre-K, when their parents register with a career-development center to begin improving their job skills.

The complex is home to both a public elementary school and a pre-school, which accepts children beginning at six weeks of age. The pre-school, which opened five years ago, holds itself to high standards, and is part of Educare network, a national network of full-day, early-education schools. It has an entire art studio where children can experiment, part of a Reggio approach to learning, and its infant classrooms allow only eight students at once. …

The results at Dunbar have been impressive—after the first year alone, 55 percent of incoming kindergarten students at the elementary school were reading at or above grade level, up from 6 percent in 2010. The percentage of children below the thirtieth percentile on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test dropped by 23 percentage points the first year alone, while the percentage of those scoring above the 50th percentile increased 12 points.

Parents at the Dunbar Learning Complex also get a handful of resources to help them in parenting: Counselors help them access special teachers if their child is lagging behind in development; health navigators help ensure children get necessary vaccinations and can inspect housing, with parents’ permission, to see if anything in a family’s home might be making a child sick. The complex has monthly meetings on issues like child development, literacy, and health, and helps teach parents how to read with their children at home.

The strategy has proven so successful that there’s now a waiting list of 400 children, double the preschool’s enrollment. And that, in turn, has driven parents to show up at the Center for Working Families, up the hill, to register for job training or a career counselor. Kids can’t get on the waiting list of the Educare site unless their parents are enrolled with the Center for Working Families.

There But For Fortune Go You Or I …

William McPherson describes how he became impoverished and what it’s like:

If you’re poor, what might have been a minor annoyance, or even a major inconvenience, becomes something of a disaster. Your hard drive crashes? Who’s going to pay for the recovery of its data, not to mention the new computer? I’m not playing solitaire on this machine; the hard drive holds my work, virtually my life. It is not a luxury for me but a necessity. I need dental work. Anybody got $10,000? Dentists are not a luxury. Dental disease can make you seriously ill. Lose your cellphone? What may be a luxury to some is a necessity to me. Without that telephone and that computer, my life as I have known it would cease to exist. Not long after, so would I. I am not eager for that to happen. Need to go to a funeral hundreds of miles away? Who pays for the plane ticket? In the case of the funeral, my nephew paid for the plane ticket. My daughter and son-in-law paid for the dental work.

Sometimes, I find it deeply humiliating that I am dependent on such kindnesses when I would prefer that the kindnesses flow the other way. Most of the time, though, I am just extremely grateful for the help of family and friends. It’s not so much humiliating as it is humbling, which is a good thing.

I am ashamed to have gotten myself into this situation. Unlike many who are born, live, and die in poverty, I got where I am today through my own efforts. I can’t blame anyone else. Perhaps, it should be humiliating to reveal myself like this to the eyes of any passing stranger or friend; more humiliating to friends, actually, some of whom knew me in another life. Most of my friends probably don’t realize or would rather not realize just how parlous my situation is. Just as well. We’d both be embarrassed.

Dreher sympathizes:

As McPherson concedes, he didn’t take as seriously as he ought to have done the importance of saving, investing wisely, and living conservatively. Though he was never rich, the key factor here seems to be his inability in the past to imagine what poverty would be like, and that it would be a possibility for someone like him.

I think this is me. I mean, I have been guided by a good financial planner for the past seven or eight years, and through conservative investing and saving, have built up a decent amount of financial security. But I live in fear that I’m missing something, and through my own extravagance — hey, why not buy those expensive pork chops for that French dish you want to cook this weekend? — I will have left the gates of the city open at night, and the enemy will come in. I read that piece by William McPherson and think: yep, that could easily be me one day.

Counting The Poorest Among Us

by Dish Staff

Jordan Weissmann highlights some recent attempts to ascertain how many Americans live in extreme poverty—under $2 a day—that came up with very different numbers:

According to H. Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan and Kathryn Edin of Johns Hopkins, the number of families living under that low, low line has grown 159 percent since 1996. … Part of the reason Shaefer and Edin’s headline number was so startlingly high—they calculated that the extreme poverty rate among households with children was a chilling 4.3 percent—could be attributed to a very narrow definition of income that ignored all noncash safety net benefits. Today, most of the government’s poverty-fighting efforts don’t involve straightforward cash. Food stamps? Housing vouchers? Tax credits? None were included. Once they accounted for those programs, only 613,000 families were living below the $2-a-day mark in 2011—still up by about half since the Clinton years.

At a bare minimum, then, hundreds of thousands of American households are living in true destitution. (For a family of three, the federal poverty line works out to about $17 per day, per person.) According to the new Brookings report, however, even Shaefer and Edin’s most conservative estimates of extreme poverty might have been too high. If you look at data on income, the pair’s estimates essentially hold up. But Brookings fellow Laurence Chandy and MIT Ph.D. student Cory Smith found that if you examine U.S. consumption statistics, then the number of families surviving on less than $2 each per day falls close to zero.

Chandy explains how he arrived at that conclusion:

Part of the reason for this is that even the poorest people surveyed in America appear to find a way to meet their most basic material needs (valued above $2 a day) even if their reported income is zero or close to zero. Furthermore, the poor in America have access to public goods—public education, criminal justice and infrastructure—that would be the envy of the poor in the developing world.

However, poverty is manifested in different ways in the U.S. and developing countries. Focusing narrowly on material needs means missing other critical components of welfare that may be especially lacking among America’s poorest people. For instance, those whose survival depends on in-kind assistance may be assured that their most basic material needs are met, but the absence of a reliable source of income makes it extremely difficult to cope with the unexpected, such as replacing broken or stolen assets or emergency travel. These individuals face a virtual exclusion from the cash economy implying a dearth of agency that directly affects their welfare.

Public Assistance Isn’t “Free Money”

by Jonah Shepp

Darlena Cunha, a mother of twins who spent 18 months on the WIC program (while working full time and paying taxes), brings some personal perspective to bear on why drug testing welfare recipients amounts to utter overkill in a welfare system that already assumes all applicants are lying:

It’s also not just a phone call and done. Women applying must be pregnant or up to six months post-partum. Children can receive services Drug Screenup to their fifth birthday, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services. Once you’ve called, you have to provide proof of income for everyone in the household, proof of identity, proof of residence, proof of participation in any other program—including Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or General Assistance—immunization records for your children, pregnancy confirmation (official note from your doctor), recent height and weight measurements and a blood test for hemoglobin levels, and a WIC Referral Form from your doctor. You also have to provide documentation of any child support payments, unemployment benefits, or short-term disability money received. These requirements vary slightly from state to state, but for the most part they are consistent. …

Applying and being accepted for aid is a mentally grueling process that can stretch on for months. Add to that the humiliation of having to pee in a cup just because you can’t afford to eat.

I’ve touched on this before (and garnered some angry e-mails from readers for suggesting that Paul Ryan was on to something about how demoralizing it can be to live on welfare), but I’m always glad to see someone speak on this from a personal perspective, given how few such stories make their way into the public consciousness. I grew up on welfare in New York City in the 80s and 90s with an alcoholic single mother, so my experience in the system is very different from Cunha’s, yet I agree abundantly with the main thrust of her argument, which cannot be stressed enough: welfare is not exactly designed to make recipients feel good about themselves.

Conservative critics of the welfare state tend to denigrate it as easy money for doing nothing, and often imply or claim outright that poor people feel no shame in taking it because they (I should say, “we”) have no conception of the moral value of labor or feel that we are “entitled” to our food stamps and Obama Phones. That may be true of some poor Americans (Indeed, I have at least one or two family members who fit that description), but it’s not at all representative of those who receive public assistance. The welfare system is badly in need of fixing, not primarily because it’s too expensive but rather because it doesn’t do enough to help ameliorate entrenched poverty. Reform conservatives have some decent ideas about how to do that, but as long as this caricature of the poor is the starting point for their critique of the welfare state, they shouldn’t be surprised if they have a hard time finding an audience.

People tend to take it personally when you call them freeloaders and layabouts. Who knew?

(Photo by Francis Storr)

White Picket Fence Poverty, Ctd

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Kriston Capps flags an update to Brookings’ 2011 report on concentrated poverty, which reveals that suburban poverty in particular is growing in the wake of the Great Recession:

A rise in concentrated poverty is something we might expect to see after a prolonged recession. Still, a complete picture of the 2000s shows that the impact registered the hardest in largely rural areas surrounding geographically large metro areas. While concentrated poverty is still highest in cities—where 23 percent of poor residents live in distressed neighborhoods—the slide among poor residents into concentrated poverty was fastest in the suburbs. “Between 2000 and 2008–2012, the number of suburban poor living in distressed neighborhoods grew by 139 percent—almost three times the pace of growth in cities,” according to the report.

That poses a significant challenge to policymakers everywhere. If the best tools geared toward alleviating poverty are designed for urban centers, then they may be rendered increasingly ineffective by the new geography—with poverty spreading to areas with lower density, less transit, and fewer services. By 2008–2012, in fact, the suburbs were home to almost as many high-poverty neighborhoods as cities.

Previous Dish on suburban poverty here, here, and here.

One Way It’s Cheaper To Be Poor In America

Here’s an interesting tidbit: A bachelor’s degree from a public university costs 40 percent more in the US than in Canada, but American financial aid policies mean that poor US students wind up paying a lower net tuition than their counterparts north of the border. Christopher Flavelle wonders why, given that fact, low-income Canadians are still more likely to attend college than low-income Americans are:

[Economist Lance] Lochner offered a few possible explanations. One is price transparency: The gap between the sticker price and what you’ll actually pay to attend most US. colleges is enormous and hard to quantify, and that may be more of a disincentive to low-income families than to those for whom money is less of a concern. A more troubling explanation, and one that’s far harder to fix, is that people are less likely to come into contact with those from other income groups in the US.

“In the US, people are much more segregated in where they live,” Lochner said. “It could be, because of that, you have more segregation of knowledge.” In Canada, by contrast, “you’re more likely to go to a school where everybody hears about” the advantages of going to college, and where somebody can help you figure out what steps to take to get there. If that’s true, it means that income inequality hasn’t just increased the economic value of going to college, by increasing the earnings premium associated with a degree. It has also made going to college harder, by reducing the odds that young people from poor families will be told that a college degree is something they can attain, or should even try to attempt.

David Leonhardt emphasizes how Americans generally pay less than the sticker price for their degrees:

I know what you’re thinking at this point: Wait a minute – college really is expensive and has gotten a lot more so. It’s certainly true that public colleges have become more expensive in recent years, partly because of state budget cuts. These rising costs have created financial struggles for many students and, most worrisome of all, have kept some from graduating or even applying in the first place. By almost any economic calculation, the country would be better off if college were more affordable for middle- and low-income families.

At the same time, it’s worth remembering that the perception of college costs comes in large part from the high list price of private colleges. The next time you hear somebody describe college as costing $60,000 a year, know that the truth is: It costs $60,000 for affluent students who don’t qualify for financial aid to attend one of the elite colleges that a tiny share of Americans attend (and the figures includes housing and food). Taking into account financial aid – some of which comes from the colleges themselves, some of which comes from the government – the average tuition and fees were $12,460 at private colleges last year and$3,120 for in-state students at public four-year colleges, according to the College Board. At those prices, college is an investment with an excellent return for the vast majority of students who graduate.

Reihan pushes back:

The problem with the passage above is that ”price” and “cost” are not actually the same thing. The price is what a consumer is charged. The cost reflects the resources required to produce a given product or service. The cost of educating a student at (say) a residential four-year college might actually be higher than even the full tuition charged an affluent student; the difference could be made up by, for example, income from an endowment, or some other infusion of funds.

If we embrace Leonhardt’s analysis, we might conclude that the only problem with higher education is that net prices, i.e., prices after financial-aid grants, are too high. He’s not alone in focusing on the net price of higher education and discounting the importance of the gap between the net price and the underlying cost, which is borne by some combination of private philanthropy (usually fairly minor) and taxpayer contributions (major). I believe that taxpayers ought to subsidize higher education to some degree. Yet I’m skeptical that taxpayers should utterly ignore the underlying cost of providing higher education services, not least because ignoring these costs, and the sources of the escalation of these costs, contributes to a lack of spending discipline.