Photo of the day

From National Geographic Found:

A balloon from Anchorage, Alaska, flies over Cook Inlet, 1986. Photograph by Chris Johns, National Geographic Creative

A balloon from Anchorage, Alaska, flies over Cook Inlet, 1986. PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS JOHNS, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Policy solutions to poverty?

At the end of my class on social welfare policy a few weeks ago, one of my students asked so what are we supposed to do about poverty policy-wise.  Hey, I’m no expert on this particularly difficult issue– and no, these suggestions will not “solve” or “end” poverty, but both are super cost-effective policies that would almost surely make a meaningful difference and be huge budget positive over the long term (alas, politicians can never think further than the next election).

1) Free access to LARC’s (long-acting reversible contraceptives) for poor women/girls (the age of which will be particularly difficult, but let’s say 13).  Actually free access to LARC’s for all women would very likely be a huge policy win.  Isabel Sawhill has done a bunch of research suggesting that unwanted pregnancies are hugely problematic.  Whatever we can do to reduce them (and nothing beats LARC’s) is a huge policy win.  Preventing unwanted pregnancies among impoverished teens is an even huger win.  Heck, if it was up to me, I would totally go with a policy “nudge” here and make free LARC’s for poor teens the default value for them to opt out of.  Yeah, not going to happen, but this would actually do something meaningful to lessen the perpetuation of poverty.

2) Nurse, social-worker, etc., home visits for poor families that focus on families with young children and help poor parents with better parenting strategies.  This, for example:

A new federal antipoverty initiative may be showing the first signs of real progress.

The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program brings professionals into the homes of low-income, high-risk families to help them raise their children in physically, socially, and emotionally healthy environments. The program funds voluntary, evidence-based home visiting initiatives across the United States, with models hailed as both cost-effective and backed by data…

Home visiting programs are an answer to that problem. They consist of visits from professionals – social workers, parent educators, or registered nurses – who provide health check-ups, parenting advice, and guidance to low-income households with a pregnant mother or young children. The visits are voluntary, but parents are encouraged to spend about an hour with each visit, which can occur anywhere between weekly and monthly, depending on the child’s age and the nature of the program…

Several studies over the last two decades have supported Cintron’s experience. Experts agree that investing in children’s early development yields returns in the form of a more productive and educated workforce, reduced odds of delinquency, crime, and disease, and savings in taxpayer dollars.  

This works.  Let’s do it!  Spend now and reap huge benefit later, damnit.

Meanwhile, on a related note, an interesting Monkey Cage piece arguing that we can even have an impact among troubled teenage males, i.e., it’s not actually too late:

Most solutions you’ve heard of probably boil down to one of two things: jobs or jail. Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that either do much good. In fact, some of the policing and punishment could be making things worse.

Recently, however, social experiments from two very different places — Liberia and Chicago — suggest an alternative: a few weeks of counseling to teach self-control and how to become a better person.

Jobs and jail assume that adults are adults — you’re not going to change who they are, but you can change their incentives. I’m an economist by training, so of course I think that incentives matter. That’s practically our motto. But in repeating it, we might forget to study whether people can change, to what, and how.

Actually, we do think about this kind of change in children. Invest in early childhood. This is what so much research tells us

So what about the young men who reach adulthood and don’t have these skills?

The article goes on to discuss effective programs in Liberia and Chicago that have been very effective with crime-prone teenage males.

What these programs have in common is that they teach young men things that a lot of their peers got earlier in life from family or institutions. It’s remedial skills for being a patient, controlled person. These programs seem to work, and they’re cheap. STYL cost less than $250 per person.

Something that works is a big deal. Whether it’s in the U.S. or developing countries, job training programs have a spotty track record. Business skills programs seldom pass a simple cost benefit test. Incarceration might make criminal behaviors worse. And policing strategies, for whatever good they do, are too often violent and discriminatory.

So with behavioral therapy we might be onto something. Finally.

Sounds good– let’s scale this Chicago program, too.

And finally, I don’t think we know quite the policy prescriptions the latest research on neighborhoods and social mobility entails, but what we can say is that neighborhood matters a lot for the social mobility of the poor.

Now, however, a large new study is about to overturn the findings of Moving to Opportunity. Based on the earnings records of millions of families that moved with children, it finds that poor children who grow up in some cities and towns have sharply better odds of escaping poverty than similar poor children elsewhere…

How neighborhoods affect children “has been a quandary with which social science has been grappling for decades,” said David B. Grusky, director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford University, who was not involved in the research. “This delivers the most compelling evidence yet that neighborhoods matter in a really big way.” …

“The data shows we can do something about upward mobility,” said Mr. Chetty, a Harvard professor, who conducted the main study along withNathaniel Hendren, also a Harvard economist. “Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter.”

The exact policies this should mean is complicated, but, clearly, insofar as we can figure out which public policies can influence the character of neighborhoods in ways that encourage more social mobility, we damn well should implement such policies.

So, what’s encouraging, is that we really seem to be figuring out some answers for public policy that make a real, lasting, and meaningful dent in poverty.  What’s discouraging is that we need our politicians to actually implement these policies on a wide scale.  But here’s hoping.

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