After the Cliff: Opportunity to Move the Needle on Poverty?

December 11, 2012

On December 5, I watched the live webcast of the Brookings Institution/Half in Ten Campaign event, A Poverty and Opportunity Agenda: What’s in Store for the Next Four Years, which focused on what we as a nation must do to reduce poverty and expand opportunity among young people and low-income familes.

And you know what? I loved it.

During the discussion, both liberal and conservative panelists agreed that a robust economy is the best anti-poverty program we could have. If we don't back away from the edge of the fiscal cliff in the right way, we could be back in a recession.

But the panel was not about the fiscal cliff—and that's a relief these days. Instead, it was a refreshing focus on longer-term solutions. In particular, several major areas where we have a real shot at bipartisan solutions in this next term. Here are some of the highlights.

It Really IS About the Economy...

We can keep kids in school because they’ll see a connection between what they’re learning and what they want to do.

Here’s the big take-away from the panel: if you can make the case that a program or benefit spurs economic growth and makes work pay, you have a better chance of getting bipartisan buy-in. No surprises there, but the anti-poverty advocacy community doesn't always make the case this way. It's challenging to get the right data. And "it's good for the economy" isn't always the message we lead with, we often start with a more human-focused approach.

Jobs are Key

Both liberals and conservatives on the panel agreed that economic growth—and jobs—are the key to upward mobility and shared prosperity.

Public assistance policies include work as a requirement for most who are able. That means there have to be jobs available, as Jared Bernstein, Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, pointed out.

Here liberals and conservatives might part ways. If the private sector isn’t creating enough jobs, then government will have to step in with public-service or other jobs to fill the gap.  An example: Bernstein noted that in the future, the economy is expected to create a lot of low-wage jobs in services that can't be outsourced but may not pay well (such as child care workers, food prep, retail sales, security guards). Robust work supports like guaranteed health coverage, help with transportation and housing, refundable tax  can turn these low-wage jobs into decent jobs.

When it comes to good jobs, there is good news. A Harvard Business School report has found that our economy is likely to create 25 million “middle-skills” jobs over the next 10 to 15 years in fields like nursing, air conditioning repair, etc. – jobs that pay around $50,000. If we align career and technical education to these skills, we can keep kids in school because they’ll see a connection between what they’re learning and what they want to do when they leave school, and we can prepare a workforce that can fill that growing job market.

Quality Child Care Essential to Employment

Both sides see the importance of early child care and early education. This is the number one worry among working parents: if you can’t find adequate child care, you can’t work. And with the consistent evidence mounting over the last 20 years on the importance of quality early care, making sure parents can find and afford quality child care is a win-win – for parents to work and for the next generation to enter school ready to learn.

Graduation Rates Matter

Both sides cite the importance of education and keeping kids in school through high school graduation, at least. Several panelists cited approaches that have improved outcomes for students: career academies, small learning communities, strong principal leadership, measuring student and teacher performance, etc. In most cases the problem is in bringing what we know works to scale.

John Bridgeland made the case for focusing “like a laser” on the 1,550 worst schools in the US.

Character Education

Beyond academics and education, there was also common ground on the importance of “soft skills” – social learning to help children and youth strengthen empathy and the ability to cooperate, the importance of perseverance and “grit,” high expectations and responsibility.

Given the current emphasis on testing and new academic standards, it’s hard to see where the time and resources will come to address social learning in schools. There wasn’t much on this from the panel, but their emphasis on the importance of cultural norms and parenting responsibilities touched on the recognition that schools can’t do it alone.

Programs that emphasize academics with social/personal development like YouthBuild and Habitat for Humanity were mentioned. Not mentioned were afterschool and other programs designed to give children and youth opportunities for healthy development.

Teen pregnancies are at historic lows, yet half of U.S. babies are born to unwed mothers, many from unintended pregnancies.

The "Triumvirate for Success"

If you focus on families, you have to pay attention to family composition and timing. A lot was said about the so-called triumvirate for intergenerational success: finishing school, avoiding early, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and working full-time.

The difficulty here, especially in the case of early parenting, is what to do about it. Sawhill said while teen pregnancies are at historic lows, half of the babies born are born to unwed mothers (mostly in their twenties) and many of these are from unintended pregnancies.

Speaking of families, cultural norms, resources and opportunity gaps, I was most struck by Gene Sperling’s description of growing up middle class vs. poor. Middle class families have a “magnet” that pulls their kids back from risk and failure so that their mistakes don’t have dire consequences. For poor kids, the risks in the neighborhood mean that a kid can do everything right but one slip can mean disaster.

There were also several areas of disagreement, of course, but let’s end this blog on a positive note. It was a rare panel these days, in that it focused on the areas of agreement across party lines.

I recommend watching the panel yourself:


  • Gene Sperling,Director, National Economic Council, The White House View Bio
  • Tevi Troy, Former Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute View Bio
  • JoAnne Barnhart, Former Commissioner, Social Security Administration View Bio
  • Jared Bernstein, Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities View Bio
  • John Bridgeland, President and CEO, Civic Enterprises View Bio
  • Isabel V. Sawhill, Co-Director, Budgeting for National Priorities, Center on Children and Families, Brookings, View Bio
  • Mona Sutphen, Former Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy,The White House View Bio

Jan Richter is a retired clinical social worker and child psychotherapist, and long-time children's advocate and writes the SparkAction Update. Read her bio here.

Jan Richter