New CaseyCast Podcast Talks Solutions to America’s Stubborn Child Poverty Rate

Posted June 27, 2016, By

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Interviewee:

Ron Haskins co-directs the Center on Children and Families and serves as a senior fellow in the Economic Studies program for the Brookings Institution. He is an expert on poverty, preschool and foster care as well as an Annie E. Casey Foundation senior consultant and a former White House and congressional advisor on welfare issues.

The worst of all situations would be a child born into poverty, and who lives in poverty for a significant fraction of their life.

–Ron Haskins

Show Notes

In this episode of CaseyCast, host Lisa Hamilton chats with Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families and senior fellow in the Economic Studies program for the Brookings Institution. Their conversation focuses on America’s unrelenting poverty problem and reviews policy recommendations in three areas — family, work and education — aimed at enhancing our nation’s economic stability.

Hamilton is the vice president of external affairs for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In this podcast series, she engages a new expert each month to talk about how we can work together to build brighter futures for kids, families and communities.

View Transcripts

Lisa Hamilton: President Johnson launched the War on Poverty in the mid-1960's with a set of bold Federal policies. By the turn of the century, however, very few political candidates were discussing issues involving poverty or economic mobility. Possible solutions were not part of the national conversation, yet the Great Recession brought new attention to the ever-growing number of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet.

At the end of 2015, two leading think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution partnered to release an important new report: Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security, a Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream.

One of the report's lead authors is today's guest, Ron Haskins, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. A former White House and Congressional advisor on welfare issues, Ron co-directs the Brookings Center on Children and Families, and is also a consultant with the Casey Foundation. He's an expert on pre-school, foster care, and poverty, and he was instrumental in the 1996 overhaul of national welfare policy.

We're delighted to have Ron join us today. How are you doing? Welcome.

Ron Haskins: Doing fine, thank you. It's good to be here. I'm looking forward to the discussion.

Lisa Hamilton: Great. Let's start by talking about how children are doing, in terms of their economic well-being. In June, the Casey Foundation released it's 2016 KIDS COUNT Data Book, which annually ranks states on 16 different indicators of child well-being. While we see progress in many areas, such as health and education, the economic condition of children in low-income families is simply not improving. Ron, could you tell us why that is?

Ron Haskins: Yes. I think there are a host reasons. You could probably get up to six or seven different reasons, but I think there are three especially important things, and they have to do with the organization of this report that we're going to talk about in a few minutes.

Probably the single biggest factor is the historic increase in single-parent families, especially female headed families. The reason that's so important is that the probability that a child will be in poverty is five times as great in a single-parent family as it is in a married couple family. In effect, what we have been doing is reducing the percentage of our kids who are in the family composition in which they're least likely to be in poverty, namely married parents, and into the situation where they're most likely to be in poverty, namely, single-parent and female-headed families.

If you think about this for a minute, government policy could be effective. More people could work. A lot of factors could be going on that would reduce poverty, put downward pressure on poverty, and the poverty rate would still go up because so many kids are going into low-income families. Secondly, of course, the recession had a tremendous impact on families, especially low-income families, and especially female headed families, so that's the major source of income in these families, is earnings, so if unemployment increases, and as a result of that, some moms and others dropped out of the labor force, so work is another very big issue in poverty. Then, in the long run, the most important issue of all, not in the short run, but in the long run, is education. This is a very great weakness in America, especially for kids from low-income families. That is that their education is poor. Not enough of them have the skill to go to four-year colleges. A lot of them do have the skills to go to two-year colleges and earn other certificates for work.

We'll talk about that more later, but all three of these areas, the family, work, and in the long run especially, education are all problematic, and until we attack these, and are more successful than we are now, we're going to have very high rates of child poverty.

Lisa Hamilton: The second reason you mentioned is work. What shifts have we seen in the type of job that pays enough to support a family, and the qualifications needed to get those jobs?

Ron Haskins: Let me make a distinction, here. There are low-income jobs, basically, it's service sector jobs, 10, 11, 12 dollars an hour, and then there are so-called middle skill jobs, and these are jobs that you need a skill, generally though, you do not need a four-year degree, and often, you don't need a two-year degree, but a skill, like plumbing, or an electrician, medical technician. Those jobs are growing rapidly. There is a big fight over whether those middle skill jobs are declining. Some of the best experts in this area, especially Harry Holzer, of Georgetown University, and Bob Lehrman, of American University, have done a very careful analysis, and I think most economists agree with them that we are, for the foreseeable future, we are going to have a lot of these middle skill jobs, that people could make up to 50, 60, 70 thousand a year, which would take them way above poverty, but the types of jobs have shifted, so that computer technician, as I said, medical technician, the kind of jobs have changed, and manufacturing is declining, and other so-called middle skilled jobs are declining.

There are problems in the economy, and we definitely, this is a major point, we definitely have a situation where if a family is going to earn 40, or 50, or 60 thousand a year, in most cases, a high school degree will not do. We can get a lot of kids through high school. High school graduation rates have been improving, but they're not necessarily going to get good jobs to support a family. Even the single-parent family, you need a better job, so this mismatch between the jobs available in the economy, and the education that low-income families are getting is a problem. By the way, we're learning a lot about how to help people get their certificates and other qualifications that they need for these jobs, and we've had several very good studies, that are very scientific studies implemented in multiple sites, over a period of years, with long term follow-up, and we've learned a lot about how to help people get into those jobs.

Part of it is that we're just, we're not doing the right thing. We're not doing enough of the right thing. We could have a big impact on poverty, even though we've had these big changes in the American economy, and even though, because of technology and international competition, the kind of jobs that you need to escape poverty, and be well above the poverty level, involves skills.

Lisa Hamilton: Ron, let's talk about what this level of poverty means for children. Our KIDS COUNT Data Book let's us know that a quarter of kids are growing up below the Federal poverty level, and nearly half of them are growing up in low-income families. What's the consequence of this on their development and their future prospects?

Ron Haskins: I have noticed, over the years, the developmental psychologists who are probably the primary group that studies this issue disagree on many, many, many things, but they do not disagree, generally, on this issue. They believe that poverty is bad for children. Almost everybody believes that. If a family is in poverty for six months because they lost a job, or maybe they had a child they didn't expect, various crises that families have to face, that is not too bad. What really hurts is when a kid; two things.

One, when a very young child, say, under age three, there's a lot of evidence now that they are more sensitive to living in poverty than older children are, and secondly, long-term poverty is especially difficult. The worst of all situations would be a child born into poverty, and lived in poverty for a significant fraction of their life. Poverty is kind of like a disease, in some ways. Once you get it, the probability that the family will have it for a long time, or even if they get out, they fall back, and they keep falling back into poverty. That is exactly the kind of things that's difficult for children's development.

Lisa Hamilton: You've already mentioned how changes in family structure and the economy have impacted child poverty and outcomes. Are there any other factors?

Ron Haskins: Another factor that a lot of people cite is we've had a huge increase in inequality in America. Now, that's mostly between the top of the distribution and the rest of the distribution, and not so much between the middle and the bottom, but there's still research that suggests that the increasing inequality has had an impact on families at the bottom. I think the evidence for that is weaker than the evidence for the other factors that we're discussing here. There are still racial, and economic, and ethnic differences in poverty rates, with minorities, blacks, and Hispanics, and others, except Asians, are much more likely to be in poverty than white kids are, but this is a very interesting thing.

In education, the gaps between ethnic groups have declined, somewhat, and they've done it pretty consistently over a fairly long period of time. Meanwhile, the gaps between kids from low-income families, and middle-income families, and upper-income families have been growing. They've been growing for at least twenty years, probably longer. There are studies that show that these gaps show up in many, many different longitudinal data sets that are kept on kids from early in their life until later in their life, so I think very few people doubt this, that this educational gap is closed, somewhat, for ethnic groups and racial groups, but is has opened wider for income groups, and that's what really concerns us. That's one of the reasons it is so difficult.

Lisa Hamilton: Ron, with that context, let's switch to a conversation about some solutions. In the report, you've provided some bipartisan recommendations about what we can do to address the situation. What does it mean for the viability of the solutions, that they were developed on a bipartisan basis?

Ron Haskins: Everybody knows that there's a lot of trouble in Washington, nowadays. There's more partisanship than there's been in many years. It's very difficult to pass legislation. The phrase Do-Nothing Congress is everywhere. The President and the Congress agree on very few things, so it's very important in an environment like this to propose things that there are elements, at least, of what you propose that both sides could agree to. It can be done. It has been done. There has been a fair amount of legislation passed in the last two years that concerns children. We passed legislation on child protection, the area of abuse and neglect. We've passed very good legislation on education, very good legislation on preschool programs, so it is possible to do it.

We had the idea that if we could assemble a group of half progressive/liberal scholars, many of whom have had experience in government, and half, in this case, eight conservatives that also are noted scholars, many of whom have had experience in government, if we could hammer out an agreement that both sides would have to swallow hard on some of the things that the other side wants, but if we could do that, and write a report that was coherent, and well-written, and fairly short, that we might be able to have an impact on the policy process. Now, I've been a part of the policy process for many, many years, both in the Congress and in the White House, and I know how hard it is. I'm not naïve, and there was no one in the group that was naïve, but we thought, given how partisan the situation is in Washington, it was really worth a try.

Of course, we didn't know if we could actually hammer out agreement, and we did hand it out. We met five times, for a day each time, in New York and Washington. There were sixteen members of the group. The attendance was terrific, wonderful discussions. As we got down toward the end, we had some fairly pointed sessions, but we did hammer out an agreement, so for example, the left does not particularly like to talk about marriage, as one of the causes of poverty, and a lack of mobility in the US, and they agreed to do it. There were several stipulations involved. We have to emphasize that stability is probably the most crucial element, and you could have stability without having a two-parent family, especially if you have cohabitation, but we agreed to that. On the other side, conservatives agreed to minimum wage, which is probably the issue that conservatives are most united against, so both sides had to give.

Our thought was that when we publish the report, and we emphasize this, that Congress should be able to look at that report and say, "Well, here's something I don't like, but here's something I do," and we thought that would advance a debate, and show that it could be done.

Lisa Hamilton: Well, great. Let's talk about some of those recommendations. You frame the report around three core topics, family, work, and education. Let's talk about each and understand some of the solutions that the working group put forward. First, in the area of family.

Ron Haskins: In each of these three areas, we had four major recommendations, and then some quite specific things, in case Congress actually decided to adopt some of these. The people who would draft the legislation would have some hints about specifically what we want. In the area of family, the four recommendations are that we should promote marriage and stability in the children's living arrangement.

Secondly, that we should have responsible child-bearing, which means that we should have much more use of birth control, and it should especially be available to low-income families. We've got all kinds of specific ideas in the report about that. Third, parenting and skills are crucial. We now have a lot of studies showing that parents, and the time they spend with the child, and reading to the child, and involved in discussions with the child, have a big impact on the child's development, not just during the preschool years, but well into childhood, and we have good studies that show that most parents would really like to improve, and that they can improve, and it has an impact on the children, so it's very promising that we could do more things there.

Then, finally, there's a huge problem with young men, especially minority young men, and in fact, there are a lot of theories out there that say a lot of young women, especially minority young women, do not get married. They have babies outside marriage, but the do not get married because they don't have a very good choice set. A lot of the guys are in prison, or they're poorly educated. There are a lot of problems with the young men, so we have a whole set of recommendations about things that we could do that would help young men do better in school, and be more likely to get employment. One of our biggest proposals was that we would subsidize the earnings of young men to provide a lure to get them into the job market, and that might help improve marriage rates, or the stability of cohabitation rates.

Lisa Hamilton: What about your recommendations under the category of work?

Ron Haskins: Work is an interesting area, not least because we had a lot of agreement among the members of our working group on this area. I'm going to mention three of the recommendations that we made. One is to expand opportunities for the disadvantaged by improving their skills. This is an area that I think is very hot right now, out in the countryside. There are a lot of states and a lot of localities that are trying to incorporate training, both during the public school years and following, and training, this is the key, for jobs that are available in the local economy, and do not require a four year degree, so sometimes it could be an internship. It could be some sort of training program that leads to a certificate, but the key is it's not a four-year degree, and even kids who did not necessarily shine in high school could be well expanding their opportunities for skilled training.

The second area is to expand work requirements in Federal programs, but here we have a long debate about the current TANF program (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which can throw people off the rolls, can throw single mothers off the rolls if they don't meet the work requirements, and also if they've hit a time limit. Of course, the members of our group who were progressive did not like that. It's something that a lot of progressives don't like. It was something they argued against strongly in Welfare Reform, so we made a compromise that no person could lose benefits because of these kind of work requirements, and if we expand the work requirements to the food stamp and housing programs, that no person could lose benefits unless they had been offered an actual job. That, from the perspective of people on the left, made a lot of sense. They're not against work. They think people should work. They want them to work more, but they don't want anybody thrown off the rolls because they didn't get a job, if there was no job available.

The next recommendation, of course, was to make more jobs available, and the states would have probably some choices here, but they might run a program in which they're actually supplying something like public jobs, for at least a period of time, until people can find their own job.

Lisa Hamilton: Finally, what were the recommendations that the working group had around education?

Ron Haskins: We had a number of recommendations in education, but I want to focus on two, mainly because they're so popular. The two areas that we thought really needed ... First, they had a lot of evidence that they work, but then need some serious attention, are public investments in preschool, and in post-secondary. We do actually have a lot of evidence in both of these areas that they can work well. Preschool can prepare kids for the public schools. The can result in them behaving better in the public schools. We have a number of studies that have shown long term impacts all the way into adulthood, but generally, in programs like Head Start, and even some state pre-K programs, we don't get those kind of long term benefits, even some fairly rapidly disappearance of the benefits from short term, so we want to focus on that area. We want to make sure that we do everything we can to have powerful impacts during the preschool years, and kids learn enough so that they can do well in the public schools, and maybe that would feed on itself.

Then, for the area of post-secondary education, we wanted to get a number of recommendations again, but one of the most interesting was to base state funding, states give money to both two-year and four-year colleges, and we wanted to make that money, at least part of it, contingent on their actual performance, so that the two-year schools and four-year schools would be evaluated, in effect, and their reimbursement from the state would be based, in part, on how well they do. What that means is, the number of students who complete whatever their degree course is, the number of students who actually get a job, and the wages they get in those jobs.

Now, that may seem like pretty complex undertaking, and will take a lot of money, a lot of time to gather those data, but most states have that data already. This is kind of the new wave in program evaluation, that use administrative data whenever you can. First of all, you have it more people. In many cases, it's more reliable, but above all, you have it on so many people, and you don't have to do anything additional to get it. We want the states to be able to access that data and use it to evaluate what happens to their kids so they actually finish. Then, do they get a job, and how much do they earn in that job? Then, in turn, their reimbursement from the state will be based on their performance, which we think is a very strong idea.

Those aren't all of our recommendations, but that's the most interesting recommendations in the areas of family, and work, and education.

Lisa Hamilton: Thanks for joining us today, Ron.

I want to thank our listeners for joining, as well. If you've enjoyed today's conversation, rate our podcast on iTunes to help others find us. To learn more about our podcast, and for show notes, visit our website, aecf.org, and follow the Casey Foundation on Twitter @aecfnews. Until next time, I wish all of America's kids, and all of you a bright future.