Monday, March 29, 2010

Fighting Poverty?

"This wave of research suggests that there’s no magic bullet, that helping people is hard, and that even when pilot programs succeed they can be difficult to scale up. But evidence also suggests that we increasingly have the tools to chip away at poverty. We know what to do if we just can summon the political will."

Nicholas D. Kristof, "Escaping From Poverty," The New York Times, March 25, 2010.

Who can argue with this message? We have evidence that poverty can solved, or at least chipped away at: all we need is the political will to get behind these efforts that work in a big way.

Kristof doesn't loop back to three of his orginal theses about why poverty has proved so intractable to reduce in the last thirty years -- declining wages, the skyrocketing incarceration of men, especially African-American men, and changes in family structure. I'm afraid many economists have not been especially helpful in redressing these problems, much less keeping them from getting worse, and randomized trials have not been used to evaluated the effects of family supporting jobs and benefits.

"We’re now seeing more experiments, modeled after randomized drug trials, that measure carefully whether an approach works and how cost-effective it is. Partly this reflects the rise of economists (at the expense of political scientists and do-gooders) and the rigor they pack in their briefcases."

So, maybe there is some room politics and do-gooders. One thing we have learned is that poverty is not just about the people but about the opportunity environment.

I could quibble with the list of solutions -- although it's a pretty good list. Not all interventions have cost effectiveness studies, very important social policies like tax credits and other work supports are left out, and there is no mention of recent experimental results that sector-based workforce programs make a big difference.

In a larger sense, Kristof doesn't grapple with what it means to leave poverty behind. Is it a magic number, the poverty rate (old or alternative) that people pass over? Are we saving kids -- or is this a two-generation approach to poverty alleviation? Is the magic threshold 200% of the poverty rate? Is working but poor a condition that requires its own set of interventions?

Lots of questions. Kristof is absolutely correct that it will challenging to make much progress with adults in poverty given this economy. Do we have any randomized trials about job creation?

I think it's a bit too soon for a drumroll.

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