Thank you for inviting me to testify on what might be done to reduce poverty in America. As a Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings, I have done extensive work on these issues; although I should note that the views I will express are my own and should not be attributed to other staff, trustees, or funders of the Brookings Institution. Let me first summarize my testimony.
First, I strongly believe that reducing poverty requires a focus both on what government needs to do and on what individuals need to do. We need a combination of responsible policies and responsible behavior.
Second, although there are many things that might be done to reduce poverty in the U.S., I want to argue for a focus on three priorities: getting a good education, not having children before you marry, and working full-time. Government should expect people to make real efforts to comply with each of these norms. When they do, then government should reward such behavior by making sure that those who play by the rules will not be poor. The analysis we have done at Brookings shows that individuals who play by these rules are much less likely to be poor than those who don’t.
Third, one of the most effective policies we could put in place to ensure that everyone gets a good education would be to provide very high-quality early education to all children from low-income families. Many people believe that education in the preschool years only affects young children. In fact, the evidence from both neuroscience and from carefully done program evaluations shows that preschool experiences have long-lasting effects and may be the most cost-effective way to insure that more children are successful in the K-12 years, graduate from high school, go on to college, and earn more as adults. The federal government could further this goal by providing matching funding to states that are willing to invest in high-quality early education for those living in low-income neighborhoods, starting in the first year of life.
Fourth, too many of our teens and young adults are having children before they are married and before they are ready to be good parents. In my view, the solution to this problem resides as much in the larger culture-in what parents, the media, faith communities and key adults say and do-as it does in any shift in government policy per se. However, government can help by providing resources to those fighting this battle in the nongovernmental sector, by insuring that its own policies do not inadvertently encourage childbearing outside of marriage, and by supporting programs that have had some success in reducing early, out-of-wedlock childbearing.
Finally, encouraging and rewarding work is also very important. I support the idea of work requirements in welfare, and perhaps in other programs as well, but I fear that the kind of increased employment we’ve seen among welfare mothers will be a Pyrrhic victory if we don’t find ways to provide more assistance in the form of a higher minimum wage, a more generous EITC, and additional child care and health care assistance. In my testimony today-at the suggestion of your staff-I will focus especially on preschool education and on the need to decrease childbearing outside of marriage and increase the share of children growing up in two-parent, married families. But I have written elsewhere about the importance of providing additional work supports for low-income working families.