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October 5, 2017; Atlantic

We all know the script. Famously, one of President Ronald Reagan’s favorite lines was, “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” And yet, happily, the data tell us a very different story. To be sure, the United States still has far too much poverty and a higher poverty rate than every other country of similar wealth in the world, but poverty in the United States, especially childhood poverty, is nonetheless falling. In times when so many things seem out of kilter, it is good to step back and realize that the country is making progress in some areas.

According to a report authored by Isaac Shapiro and Danilo Trisi of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which was released this week, child poverty hit a record low of 15.6 percent in 2016. This number is down from 18.1 percent in 2012 (Great Recession peak) and from 28.4 percent in 1967. In other words, the child poverty rate has fallen almost in half since the “War on Poverty” began. As the report’s authors note, “Some 9.5 million fewer children are poor today than would be if the poverty rate had remained unchanged.”

So maybe once in a while, rather than look at what isn’t working, we should look at what is working and how we can work with those points of leverage to get even more positive results. Such an approach, known as appreciative inquiry, was developed by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland back in the 1980s. As the Center for Appreciative Inquiry explains:

Appreciative Inquiry is a way of being and seeing. It is both a worldview and a process for facilitating positive change in human systems, e.g., organizations, groups, and communities. Its assumption is simple: Every human system has something that works right–things that give it life when it is vital, effective, and successful. AI begins by identifying this positive core and connecting to it in ways the heighten energy, sharpen vision, and inspire action for change.

Applying this appreciative inquiry approach, we might ask ourselves: What is it that enabled our country to lift 9.5 million children out of poverty? And is there anything we can learn from that experience that might help us lift another 9.5 million children out of poverty?

One factor that affects the presence of childhood poverty, of course, is the economy. So, a primary driver of the recent decline in poverty is an improving economy. However, an improving economy is not the primary driver of the longer-term decline. “In fact,” notes Anne Lowrey of the Atlantic, “stagnating wages, reduced bargaining power, automation, and offshoring have held down the earnings of families in the bottom of the income spectrum, and spiraling income inequality has meant that most of the gains of economic growth have gone to families at the top.”

As Lowrey points out, if you don’t account for government policies, “the rate has barely budged since the late 1960s, going from 27.4 percent in 1967 to 25.1 percent in 2016.” But government anti-poverty policies have made a big difference. “All in all, the government’s policies moved 38 percent of kids who would otherwise be poor above the poverty line in 2016,” writes Lowrey.

“It’s striking to see how much the strength of the safety net has increased over time,” says Trisi, one of the coauthors of the report. “That’s very good news.”

What were the key programs? The researchers identify three that are of particular importance. Two of these—the earned income tax credit and the child care tax credit—are refundable tax credits that involve cash transfers to low-income working Americans. These measures are responsible for lifting 5 of the 9.5 million children out of poverty. The phrase “refundable” is an insider Washington term that means you get a refund check from the government even if you don’t pay income tax. (As Mitt Romney remarked, much to his later regret, during the 2012 presidential election campaign, about 47 percent of Americans do not earn enough to pay income tax. However, many in this group pay significant payroll taxes, which is the money that is being “refunded” by the credit.) A third key program is SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as food stamps, which has “lifted millions of additional children out of poverty.”

Other programs, such as housing assistance and supplemental social security income, have also helped lift children from poverty—as, of course, have health insurance programs, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program, started in the 1990s, and the Affordable Care Act. As of 2016, 95 percent of all US children had health insurance, the highest percentage ever recorded, up from 86 percent in 1997.

“In short,” Shapiro and Trisi write, “child poverty is now at an all-time low while children’s health coverage is at an all-time high.”

Of course, none of this is to deny that poverty robs far too many in the United States of life chances. “Child poverty,” report coauthor Shapiro says, is “still higher than in other, comparably wealthy countries. And even though government programs have expanded, we still do far less to reduce child poverty than other nations.”

Moreover, as Lowrey notes, children of color have triple the poverty of white children. “Poverty,” Lowrey writes, “does not just mean worse grades, missed days of school, and skipped meals….it has profound, long-term effects, in terms of health, educational achievement, earnings, and even mortality.”

It is not news that poverty in the United States remains a major challenge with serious detrimental impacts for people affected. But it is heartening to recognize the millions who have benefitted from antipoverty efforts to date. In short, lowering poverty may be hard and it may require resources, but government resources, properly applied, can—and as the data show, actually do—make a significant difference in millions of people’s lives.—Steve Dubb