Measuring progress in 'War on Poverty'

Published on Saturday, 18 January 2014 21:56 - Written by

Measurement matters. There’s an old business school saying: “what gets measured gets done.” That’s true. But it’s also true that how something is measured matters.

As we consider the War on Poverty, now in its second half-century, one thing is increasingly clear. We need a better way to measure all aspects of the issue — to determine what poverty is, what works in combating it, and who is truly committed to winning the war.

It’s also clear that one common measure — how much we spend on anti-poverty programs — has failed. It’s a broken yardstick that has no real bearing on reality. That doesn’t mean the Democratic Party won’t use it to evaluate its own commitment to helping the poor — and the commitment of the Republicans.

“There’s a simple way to tell whether the Republican Party’s newfound commitment to fighting poverty is more than rhetoric: Follow the money,” writes Ezra Klein for the Bloomberg news service. “Follow the trail in the party’s recent budgets and what you find, hidden between appendix tables, are deep cuts to programs for the poor.”

Klein wanders off into the tall grass when he accuses the GOP of making such cuts “to square all [its] promises” to big business and other “favored constituencies.” That’s an attack on motives, and it’s an attack the Democrats ought to be particularly careful in making, if we’re talking about “favored constituencies.” But the real point is that Klein measure commitment to the poor by dollar amounts allotted to various programs.

That metric might mean something — if all the programs worked.

Some of them do, and some of them provide important relief and assistance that we, as a society, have all agreed is part of the American social contract. No one should starve in America, and our elderly should be cared for. So as imperfect as they are, the food stamps program and Medicare are deserving of funding. So is Medicaid, though many in the GOP rightly point to unconscionable waste and abuse of the system.

But no serious economist argues that indefinitely prolonging benefits for the long-term jobless doesn’t have the effect of prolonging joblessness. Unemployment benefits are set for a reasonable amount of time, and that time was extended due to the Great Recession. Continuing to extend the benefits indefinitely doesn’t make sense.

Some government programs are counterproductive in the War on Poverty. Looking at statistics, there’s little question that unrestricted, direct welfare payments can be destructive. Both parties agreed on that during the 1990s, hence the welfare reform legislation signed by President Clinton.

That legislation recognized that in most situations, a job is the best way out of poverty. Welfare reform encouraged recipients to enter the workforce. And by all measures, it work.

And measures are what we’re talking about now. When Republicans seek lower corporate tax rates and less regulation, that’s not an assault on the poor, as Klein claims — it’s a commitment to a better form of welfare.

We shouldn’t try to measure commitment to helping the poor by looking at the bottom line alone.