The Center's work on 'Trends' Issues


Improving the Odds for America’s Children

April 21, 2014 at 12:18 pm

The safety net has been more effective than critics suggest, the Center’s Robert Greenstein, Sharon Parrott, and I explain in a chapter for Improving the Odds for America’s Children, which Harvard Education Press has just published.

For our chapter, we reviewed the last 40 years of anti-poverty policies for children and offered ideas for future decades.

Here’s some of what we found, and some of what we proposed:

Household incomes have risen since 1973 for the poorest fifth of children if you include the value of non-cash benefits, as most experts favor (the official poverty figures omit them).  If you eliminated the safety net today, another 9 million children would fall into poverty.

Also, studies show that income from safety-net programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (ETIC) and SNAP (formerly food stamps) has a powerful effect on children’s long-term success, in school and beyond.

Yet poverty and hardship continue to stunt many children’s futures.  To help families obtain incomes that are adequate to raise successful children, we recommend steps in three core areas:

  • Jobs:  Creating a funding stream similar to the successful TANF Emergency Fund — through which states placed more than 260,000 low-income adults and youth in paid jobs during the Great Recession — but one that was permanent and expanded in an economic downturn.
  • Income support:  For example, expanding housing vouchers (and making it easier for people with vouchers to move to neighborhoods with more jobs and better schools), while preserving recent improvements in the Child Tax Credit and EITC.
  • Support for work and higher earnings:  For example, raising the minimum wage and providing more funding for job training and child care assistance.

Other chapters provide analysis and policy ideas from noted experts such as Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane (on inequality), Sara Rosenbaum (health care), Deborah Jewell-Sherman (education), Jane Waldfogel and Michael Wald (child protection and family support), Joan Lombardi (child care), and others.

Ryan Report Largely Ignores Anti-Poverty Programs’ Long-Term Successes

March 28, 2014 at 12:46 pm

House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan’s recent poverty report largely ignores evidence that anti-poverty programs can open doors of opportunity and yield lasting benefits for participants and society as a whole — even when this evidence comes from the same researchers whom the report cites for other purposes.

Here are a few examples:

SNAP (formerly food stamps).  Disadvantaged children born in counties with access to food stamps grew up to be healthier than children in counties without it, according to a major study.  They also were 18 percentage points more likely to finish high school, and girls from these counties rated higher on an index of adult “self-sufficiency” outcomes such as education, income, and staying off welfare.  The Ryan report ignores this evidence, while citing a different study by two of the same researchers on the program’s short-term work disincentives in its early years.

Working family tax credits.  Additional income from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit leads to significant increases in students’ test scores, a study found.  The authors also noted that such test-score gains tend to lead to sizeable improvements in students’ earnings as adults.  While the Ryan poverty report praises the EITC’s work incentives — and cites another study by one of the same researchers on the link between marriage and economic mobility — it ignores this and other research on the EITC’s long-term gains for children.

Head Start.  The Ryan report says that Head Start is “failing to prepare children for school,” citing the lack of measurable differences between Head Start students and a control group during elementary school.  But this conclusion ignores evidence of the program’s long-term benefits.

One study found that former Head Start attendees score higher than their siblings on a “composite index” of long-term outcomes in areas such as education, employment, and health status.  Another  study compared low-income counties that offered varying amounts of Head Start in 1965 (because some counties received more federal help launching the program) and found higher high school graduation and college enrollment and better health outcomes in the Head Start counties decades later for people of the right age to have participated in the program.

Importantly, such long-term gains don’t depend on sustained test-score gains, according to several studies of Head Start and similar interventions.  For example, a review of three leading preschool pilot programs notes that although participants’ test-score gains diminished over time, these participants were much likelier to finish high school and enter college than other students.  The Ryan report cites this study but only to show that the programs benefited girls more than boys.

To be sure, some Head Start programs need improving.  But these studies suggest that recent efforts by the Obama Administration and Congress to strengthen quality and accountability are a better way to go than simply abandoning the Head Start model.

The Ryan report grimly concludes that federal programs are “failing to address” poverty.  Poverty certainly remains too high.  But the report seems determined not to recognize the long-term successes of existing programs even when the evidence is in plain sight.

Ryan’s Misleading Review of the Safety Net

March 4, 2014 at 10:51 am

House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan’s new report on safety net programs and poverty is disappointing, we explain in a new commentary.

Here’s an excerpt:

Though it purports to be a balanced, evidence-based review of the safety net, it falls far short of that standard.  It’s replete with misleading and selective presentations of data and research, which it uses to portray the safety net in a negative light.  It also omits key research and data that point in more positive directions.

For several years now, Chairman Ryan (R-WI) has proposed annual budgets that would deeply cut programs for the poor.  The Ryan budgets have consistently secured between 60 and 67 percent of their budget cuts from programs for low- or moderate-income people.  The true test of Chairman Ryan’s forthcoming budget with regard to poverty will lie in whether it follows past practice and targets programs for less-fortunate Americans for the lion’s share of its savings.  Unfortunately, the new report may be, in part, an effort to lay a framework for severe cuts in low-income programs once again.

Click here to read the full commentary.

2009 Recovery Act Kept Millions out of Poverty

February 18, 2014 at 3:06 pm

The Washington Post points out that the 2009 Recovery Act, signed five years ago yesterday, accomplished much more than its critics acknowledge.  When it comes to using the safety net to keep people out of poverty, for example, the Recovery Act was probably the most effective piece of legislation since the 1935 Social Security Act, as our 2011 analysis explained.

Six Recovery Act provisions — three new or expanded tax credits, two expansions of unemployment insurance, and a SNAP (food stamp) benefit expansion — kept 6.9 million Americans out of poverty in 2010.  This estimate uses an alternative poverty measure based on National Academy of Sciences recommendations (a forerunner to the Supplemental Poverty Measure that the federal government now regularly reports) that considers the effect of government benefit programs and tax credits as well as cash income.

As the graph shows:

  • Expansions in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) kept 1.6 million people out of poverty.
  • The Making Work Pay tax credit, which expired at the end of 2010, kept another 1.5 million people out of poverty.
  • Expansions in unemployment insurance benefits kept 3.4 million people out of poverty.
  • Expansions in SNAP benefits kept 1 million people out of poverty.

These figures total more than 6.9 million in part because some people were kept above the poverty line by more than one program.  The 6.9 million total, though, counts each person only once.

And, as the graph shows, existing (pre-2009) policies to promote family income also kept millions of Americans out of poverty in 2010.

Moreover, these are just the initial effects of government assistance on recipient households.  They don’t show the ripple effect across the economy as government assistance allowed struggling consumers to continue to buy goods and services, despite the crippling recession, contributing to economic growth.

To be sure, these figures don’t mean that government assistance staved off all, or even most, recession-related hardship.  But they show that government assistance kept millions of Americans above the poverty line during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  That’s no small accomplishment.

Greenstein on Poverty and the Safety Net

January 28, 2014 at 1:20 pm

CBPP President Robert Greenstein testified today before the House Budget Committee on trends in poverty over the last 50 years, the current state of the safety net, and some ways that policymakers on both sides of the aisle might work together to make progress going forward.

As Greenstein explained:

Poverty has fallen significantly over the last half-century, and key troubling poverty-related conditions have declined.  Since the mid-1960s, average incomes among the poorest fifth of Americans have risen significantly, infant mortality has dropped sharply, and severe child malnutrition has largely disappeared.

Nevertheless, poverty and hardship remain high, and too many of Americans experience difficulty putting sufficient food on the table throughout the month and keeping a roof over their heads.

He discussed several ways to make progress, with a particular emphasis on three policy areas that are ripe for bipartisan cooperation and could make a meaningful difference in reducing poverty, increasing employment, and creating more stability and opportunity for poor children:

  • Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults;
  • Creating subsidized jobs, primarily in the private sector; and
  • Increasing the number of low-income families that receive Housing Choice Vouchers for private rental housing and reforming some aspects of the voucher program.

We’ll explore these recommendations in more detail in future posts.

Click here for the full testimony.