Since the mid 1960s, the United States has spent about $24 trillion on fighting poverty through various government programs. Yet, the poverty rates across the country have hardly changed. Is there a better way to address the war on poverty?
Dr. Vance Ginn thinks so, and that new approach places focus on the whole of a person, not just on their income. Dr. Ginn is Chief Economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and he joins us on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss his holistic approach to poverty prevention.
Dr. Ginn argues that the government safety net programs like SNAP and Medicaid are helpful in that people in poverty are able to pay for the most basic necessities, like food and housing. “But are they getting on a path to financial self-sufficiency thereafter?” he asks. If the government programs merely keep people from sinking deeper into poverty, but do not help them out, are they really working?
“We want people to have self-sufficiency and to be able to have that human dignity and purpose and everything else that comes with a job,” argues Dr. Ginn, “and not being in poverty and being dependent on government, on these safety net programs.”
So, how can we fight poverty without having to rely on government safety net programs? It starts at the community level, says Dr. Ginn. “I really think it needs to come back to the individuals, people helping out people, the community helping out people, things of that nature. The first line of defense really should be about civil society.”
“We think about poverty all wrong in that we’re coming up with the wrong solutions of having government oftentimes be the first line of defense, instead of the last line of defense.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Vance Ginn discuss how we can better address the war on poverty in a more holistic, honoring, and sustainable way.
Family Policy Matters
Transcript: A Holistic Approach to Poverty Prevention
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us today for Family Policy Matters. Despite trillions of dollars spent in waging a war on poverty, these efforts have barely nudged the needle on long-term poverty relief. Are we missing some crucial element in this discussion? And is it time to reevaluate how we address poverty in the public policy arena?
Well, Dr. Vance Ginn is the Chief Economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is policy director for a multi-state poverty relief initiative. He previously served in the Office of Management and Budget at the Executive Office of the President. We’re grateful to have him with us today to explore these questions and more.
Dr. Vance Ginn, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
DR. VANCE GINN: Well, thank you, and it’s a pleasure to be with you this morning.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You have been known to say we think about poverty all wrong. So, why do you say that?
DR. VANCE GINN: Well, I think what we’ve looked at typically is how much in material goods people have—how much income that they have. What we’ve done essentially, since the great society of LBJ, was we put in place a number of programs that have been expanded over time, whether it be SNAP with food stamps, TANIF, Medicaid, all these different safety net programs. If you look at them in real terms—so inflation adjusted terms—we’ve spent about $24 trillion since the mid 1960s just on these types of programs. We’re spending about a trillion dollars a year across the United States on these programs as well, and you would hope that we would have seen a much larger decline in poverty rates since then, but we really haven’t. Even if you could look at before 1965 when a lot of these were put in place, there was already a downward trend in the poverty rate that this just kind of continued, and then it flattened out over the next, you know, 40 plus years.
So, what we’re looking at is that we’re looking at poverty all wrong because we’re measuring it just by income and by material things, when really we need a more holistic approach that brings in the community, that brings in opportunity, and really more hope of what people really need for the future. I think by looking at it in a different way, we’ll not only better understand poverty and what people are going through, but also be able to come up with better solutions that are more holistic to helping out the people that are involved.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay. So, when you say that poverty, or alleviating poverty, is more about basic human needs than money, what do you mean by that?
DR. VANCE GINN: It goes back into what’s the quality of life that these individuals have that are recipients of these safety net programs. Often what you’ll see is that it’s good that they’re able to pay for food, pay for housing, some of the things that the safety net programs help them with. I think that’s something that’s helpful there, but are they getting on a path to financial self-sufficiency thereafter? Too often what we see is that these safety net programs end up being more of what I call a hammock. You get into a hammock, you lay in there, and you end up getting trapped into the system. Instead, what I think what we want to have out of these safety net programs are more like a trampoline, where you bounce back into a system or a situation of financial self-sufficiency. That way, these individuals aren’t going back into the level of poverty and back onto the safety nets as often as they are today, if at all. I mean, I think that we’d like to see them not to go back on these programs and have more self-sufficiency for their family and being able to help them overall. That’s what we’re looking at when we think about case-based management, where you have nonprofit communities helping out individuals that are connecting them more with society, with social capital and that sort of thing.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Why should Christians pursue public policy that alleviates poverty?
DR. VANCE GINN: Well, as a Christian, whenever I think about this, I think it’s one of our duties that has been taught to us in the Bible and by Jesus of saying, “Look, we need to help those that are in need and helping out the poor. So, I think it’s upon us to be able to help our fellow man, our neighbors around us. And whenever you’re thinking about it from that perspective, I don’t think that it’s so much that we need to have government always be the first line or first resort to help out these people. I really think it needs to come back to the individuals, people helping out people, the community helping out people, things of that nature. The first line of defense really should be about civil society, a flourishing civil society, jobs and things of that nature, and education and training and people helping out people. And then the last resort really should be government. I think again, why we think about poverty all wrong is that we’re coming up with the wrong solutions of having government oftentimes be the first line of defense instead of the last line of defense, where we are really putting in our Christian beliefs and the things that we hold dear to our neighbors around us, to really put those things forward to helping each other out, not just first resorting to government programs.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So, let’s talk about the primary causes of poverty here in the U.S.
DR. VANCE GINN: That’s another great question. There’s been a lot of research that’s been done in this space, and whenever you look at it, it really gets into an area that I like to talk about called the “success sequence.” We could expand on this some more later, but I think really what it is…to boil it all down: this was done by some good researchers at the Brookings Institution a few years back. What they really looked at was they said, “Look, if you graduate high school and get a full-time job thereafter, and then get married before you have kids—in that order—you’re a 90% chance of not being in poverty. So there’s not causation, it’s just correlation, right? I always like to put that out there, but at the same time, it’s indicating that there is a success sequence to not going into poverty.
So, what does that mean? Well, that means that what are some of the indicators that we can look at that are keeping people in poverty? Well, it’s the opposite of the success sequence. That’s why I bring it up now is if you don’t get a high school diploma, you’re much more likely to be in poverty. It’s hard to get higher paying jobs and things of that nature. So, it makes it more difficult for the person; if you don’t get a full-time job, you’re more likely to be in poverty. If you get a part-time job, you’re not working as many hours, so therefore you’re not going to get paid as much at the end of the week or the month and so forth. So, that’s going to put you in the lower income levels of what we consider to be poverty, by the different metrics that we have to measure poverty. And then if you have a kid out of wedlock, or before you get married, then you’re also—as a single parent—more likely to be in poverty. In fact, single mothers are the ones who tend to be the most in poverty. I mean, it’s pretty astonishing the sort of rates that you see; almost half of them (single moms) are in poverty.
So, the situation of not having enough education, not having a full-time job, and not having a two-parent household—a mother and a father—those are things that are going to put you in poverty and ultimately keep you in poverty unless we can overcome some of those issues. Which I think oftentimes a lot of the safety net programs contribute to some of the issues because we have what’s called marriage penalties and things of that nature that are within our safety net system—and also within our tax code—that kind of keeps people incentivized to not get married.
So, these are also contributing to higher and higher number of people in poverty over time. I mean, you oftentimes find that people are in poverty and just don’t know how to get out. They’re in a situation…I grew up in a pretty low-income area in south Houston, Texas, and I was (by the grace of God) able to get out, be a first-generation college student and get a PhD in economics and really continue to move up. And I’m hopefully going to help to change the direction of my family for the future. But not everyone gets those same opportunities, and that’s one of the big things that we are looking at here, whether it be the success sequence or other research, is to really show that opportunity is so important. We need to make sure that we have as many opportunities as possible for people to overcome the situations that happen in their lives.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So, you also talk about the idea of work having dignity. Why is that a concept that’s important for us to consider?
DR. VANCE GINN: Work really brings about human dignity. I think it’s a key component of who we are, not only as the Christian—I think it’s very important that God said, “Be fruitful and multiply.” I think part of that being fruitful is work, and having that work ethic that’s there goes back to as far as that. But I think even people who may not share the same faith as we do have that dignity that comes with work of being productive. I mean, I think there’s also something psychologically of being able to do something and get something out of life that’s meaningful. It just brings so much human dignity and purpose. I think it really goes along with purpose as well; that allows for you to feel like I’m making a difference. Maybe not only necessarily just in my own life, but people around me. Having that connection really brings about more opportunities for people to feel successful, to have hope, and ultimately get the income that’s coming along with that, so they can meet their basic necessities and hopefully have even more than that over time.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So, if we agree that the government program approach to the war on poverty is failing, do we have alternatives that you have not yet mentioned?
DR. VANCE GINN: Yes, we do. We recently joined—the Texas Public Policy Foundation joined—in this three-state effort that we’re calling the Alliance for Opportunity, and it’s with the Pelican Institute in Louisiana and the Georgia Center for Opportunity in Georgia (of course). What we all have is we’re all three state think tanks, more from the conservative, libertarian sort of side—the right side of the political spectrum. We really wanted to come at this and say, “Look, we’re not here to cut programs and kick people off of programs.” I don’t think that’s what we really want. Oftentimes, the Left will chastise us as that’s what we want to do, but that’s not really what it is. We want people to have self-sufficiency and to be able to have that human dignity and purpose and everything else that comes with a job, and not being in poverty and being dependent on government, on these safety net programs.
So, what we’ve been looking at are ways to really start to shed light on what these programs are doing, where the money is going. So, we’ve been suggesting independent efficiency audits—someone from outside of government, like a private auditing firm, to come in and start to audit these different programs and see if they’re actually doing what they’re intended to do. Because too often, what we find is that the money is going into other areas that were never intended, and that it’s going to a lot of bureaucratic bloats (we like to call it)—administration, I should say, I guess. Then, also you have IT and things of that nature, which are going to be a part of the equation of how much and where the money’s going to go, but not to the extent that it is today.
We’re also looking at more case-based, community-based case management to where the safety nets are not just tied to a government employee that’s basically pushing papers; they don’t have time really to see the holistic approach of how a person is, but the people in the nonprofit community are already doing that. So, why not attach them to what’s going on there, whether they need AA meetings or if they need other things. Or just having, again, that social capital of someone out in the community would really help out. We’re also looking at improving workforce development—what are the needs of or the demands of the employers that are out there? Let’s make sure we’re connecting that with the workers that are coming out of not just the four-year pipeline of a university, but career and technical education we think are so important. Community college is so important; not nearly as expensive, but there’s so many good jobs that are available that are well paying jobs that we really need people to go into. We’re also in favor of things like apprenticeships. I think that’s another key part of all of this to really get people connected to the workforce.
But then also when you’re looking at criminal justice type reforms of a lot of people that are formerly incarcerated—it’s difficult for them to get a driver’s license when they get out. So, if they don’t have a driver’s license, how are they going to get to work? So, what we’re saying is, “Look, let’s speed up this process of giving them more opportunities to get a driver’s license, assuming that the reason why they’re incarcerated wasn’t because of that, right?” It’s got to be within that sort of bound, but overall, the vast majority of people should be able to get a driver’s license so they don’t turn back to that life of crime that they once had. Also reducing occupational licensing I think is a key part of this, and then really reducing regulation so you have more job creation and everything else. I think by doing this in a more holistic way, we will get better results, so we’ll have more of a long-lasting self-sufficiency instead of just the temporary payments, transfer payments that people receive while they’re on these safety net programs.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Great, good suggestions! So we’re about at time, unfortunately, but Vance Ginn, where can our listeners go if they want to follow your work on this topic and learn more about the Alliance for Opportunity?
DR. VANCE GINN: Thank you again for the opportunity today—speaking of opportunity. The Texas Public Policy Foundation is at texaspolicy.com. You can also find me on Twitter, if some of your viewers are on Twitter, @VanceGinn. Then the Alliance for Opportunity—we have a website with what we call a roadmap with a background of each one of the areas that are affecting people in poverty, but also a roadmap of policy initiatives that we’re really trying to outline for folks. And that’s at allianceforopportunity.com, and I would point everyone there.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Great. Dr. Vance Ginn, chief economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Alliance for Opportunity, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.
DR. VANCE GINN: Thank you! Have a blessed day.
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