Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007
Creating Longer-Term Strategies
A distinguishing characteristic of the carrotand- stick policies discussed so far is that they lead to almost immediate payoffs. The goal is to provide requirements or inducements for poor and low-income adults to enter the labor force and to provide government work supports that would reward work and improve the family’s economic well-being as soon as they begin working. But these policies do not do much to reduce poverty in the long term by promoting children’s development. Especially in a nation that prides itself on the claims that all children have a chance to do better than their parents and that education is the primary route to such selfimprovement, policies to reduce poverty and inequality in the long run are essential. The United States remains a society with much economic mobility—although not as much as the public seems to assume. In fact, as suggested in a recent volume of The Future of Children, education in America now seems to reinforce rather than compensate for the differences between economic and social groups.10 The work strategy outlined above could affect children’s development by increasing family resources that could be used to purchase services—such as high-quality child care—that would benefit children. But careful analyses of welfare-to-work experiments that achieved high work rates have shown only modest effects on children.11 To boost the development of poor children, policymakers will need to go beyond workpromotion strategies.
Reducing Nonmarital Births and Strengthening Marriage
One strategy that straddles the divide between immediate and long-term effects is reducing nonmarital births and increasing the share of children who live with their married parents. As noted, a Brookings study has shown that if the same share of children lived with their married parents today as in 1970, poverty would fall more than 25 percent without any additional government spending. Although some analysts despair of reversing the growth in single-parent families that has afflicted the nation since roughly the 1960s, some progress has already been made. The most impressive change is the decline of teen pregnancy by about one-third since 1991. If teen pregnancy had not declined, the number of children from birth to age six living in poverty would be 8.5 percent higher than it is today.12 In addition, the divorce rate stopped increasing during the 1980s, and the rate of increase in the nonmarital birth rate has slowed considerably since the mid-1990s. Even so, because of changes in family composition— changes that disproportionately affect poor and minority families—the share of children in single-parent families has more than doubled since 1970.
Reversing the trend toward single-parent families would have an immediate effect in reducing poverty rates. But perhaps more important, it would also have a long-term effect on children’s growth and development. A recent volume of The Future of Children is devoted to the importance of marriage to children.13 The volume reflects the nearly universal view among scholars that children do better in married-couple families than in any other living arrangement. Thus, in addition to quickly reducing poverty rates, increasing the share of children in marriedcouple families would benefit their development over the long term and reduce the likelihood that they would be poor when they grow up. We invited Paul Amato of Pennsylvania State University and Rebecca Maynard of the University of Pennsylvania to present and analyze specific recommendations on reducing teen and unwed pregnancy and strengthening marriage.
Amato and Maynard propose programs to prevent nonmarital births by promoting abstinence among nonmarried adolescents and by improving contraceptive use among sexually active couples who are not intending to become pregnant. And they propose programs to improve the quality of marital relationships and lower divorce rates by teaching individuals and couples communication, conflict resolution, and social support skills before and during marriage.
The authors argue that an average delay of one year in the age at first intercourse among youth would lower the share of twelve- to nineteen-year-olds at risk for pregnancy and birth by about 9 percentage points. This delay, in turn, would reduce the number of teen births by about 81,000, or 24 percent a year. If only half of teens not now using contraception were to become consistent users of condoms, the pill, an injectable form of contraception, or an implant, the number of unintended births would decline by an estimated 60,000 a year, or 14 percent.
Recent trends in teen sexual activity, contraceptive use, and births suggest that a combination of existing policies and changes in the larger culture have produced favorable reductions since the early 1990s. Thus, Amato and Maynard recommend that all school systems offer health and sex education, beginning no later than middle school, with the primary message that parenthood is highly problematic for unmarried youth and young adults. They also recommend that school systems (as well as parents and community groups) educate young people about methods to prevent unintended pregnancies. Ideally, the federal government would provide districts with tested curriculum models that emphasize both abstinence and the use of contraception. All youth should understand that pregnancies are preventable and that unintended pregnancies have enormous costs for the mother, the father, the child, and society.
In addition to reducing unintended births, Amato and Maynard argue that supporting marriage is potentially an effective strategy for fighting poverty. Research indicates that premarital education improves subsequent marital quality and lowers the risk of divorce. About 40 percent of couples now participate in some type of education program before marriage. The authors suggest doubling the overall rate from 40 percent to 80 percent by offering such programs on a voluntary basis. They also recommend that states offer marriage education programs to 2 million married couples. Expanding marriage education services in this fashion could result in a decline in divorces of about 72,000 annually, which in turn would reduce by around 65,000 the number of children entering a singleparent family every year because of marital dissolution. The number of children spared the experience of divorce would accumulate annually, and after seven or eight years, half a million fewer children would have entered single-parent families through divorce. Amato and Maynard present estimates to show that these investments in premarital and marriage education programs would almost certainly be cost effective in the long run and could reduce child poverty by nearly 30 percent.
Increasing Preschool Education
Along with trying to avoid nonmarital births and increase the share of children in married-couple families, another long-term strategy for fighting poverty is to improve education. We asked Greg Duncan of Northwestern University, Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago, and Katherine Magnuson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison to recommend promising reforms at the preschool level aimed at improving the education of poor children.
The proposal by Greenberg on expanding child care, noted earlier, would allow millions of children to receive subsidized child care while their parent or parents work. Although there is no sharp distinction between the usual type of care that parents select in the market, which is typically of mediocre quality, and the kind of high-quality care that boosts children’s development, Greenberg’s proposal would provide care that on average would be less expensive than developmental care. A common claim made by both scholars and advocates is that high-quality care can boost children’s development and overcome, at least partially, the achievement gap between poor children and their more advantaged peers.14 Model programs such as Abecedarian and Perry Preschool show that large and lasting gains from interventions during the infant and preschool years are possible, but these gains are difficult to achieve and would be unlikely as long as most care is of average quality.15
Duncan, Ludwig, and Magnuson believe the nation should provide very high-quality care to disadvantaged children. They argue that early childhood is a key developmental period, when children’s cognitive and socioemotional skills develop rapidly. Thus, they propose an intensive two-year, educationfocused intervention for economically disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds. Classrooms would be staffed by college-trained teachers and have no more than six children per teacher. Instruction based on proven preschool academic and behavioral curricula would be provided to children for three hours a day, with wraparound child care available to working parents. Classroom teachers would engage in parent outreach when they were not teaching.
The authors estimate that the annual cost of the instructional portion of the program would be about $8,000, with supplemental child care adding as much as $4,000.16 Their plan would make both the instructional and child care programs available to all parents, although only low-income parents would receive full subsidies; higher-income parents would pay on a sliding scale related to income. The total cost of their proposal, net of current spending, would be $20 billion a year. The authors estimate that the benefits would likely amount to several times the cost, with some of the cost saving showing up quickly in the form of less school retention and fewer special education placements and some showing up later in the form of less crime and greater economic productivity. They estimate that their program would reduce participants’ future poverty rates between 5 percent and 15 percent by increasing their future schooling, ultimately leading to higher productivity and earnings.
Improving Public Education
Even as most researchers and analysts agree that high-quality preschool would boost children’s development over the long term, researchers also believe that effective public education could augment preschool gains if poor and minority children received higher-quality instruction. Children living in poverty tend to be concentrated in low-performing schools staffed by ill-equipped teachers. They are especially likely to leave school before earning a high school diploma and to leave without the skills necessary to earn a decent living in a rapidly changing economy.17
In his article Richard Murnane of Harvard University describes three complementary sets of initiatives that the federal government could take to improve the education of impoverished children and increase the chances that they will escape poverty in the long run. All three sets of initiatives are designed to improve the operation of the standards-based educational reforms enacted in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). In particular, the initiatives will strengthen the three legs on which standards-based reforms rest: accountability, incentives, and capacity.
The federal government can improve accountability by amending the adequate yearly progress provisions of NCLB. One important change would be to focus on growth in children’s skills rather than on having children meet specific test score targets. Another would be to develop meaningful goals for increasing the share of students who graduate from high school.
The second set of initiatives focuses on improving incentives for states to align high school graduation requirements with the skills needed for success after graduation and to develop voluntary interdistrict school choice programs that attract both low-income urban students and more affluent suburban students to study together. The third set of initiatives builds the capacity of schools to educate low-income children well and the capacity of state departments of education to improve the performance of failing schools and districts. Competitive matching grants would support the development of programs to improve teaching and leadership in highpoverty schools, as well as programs to serve high school students who do not fare well in conventional high school programs.18
The annual cost of these federal education initiatives would be approximately $2 billion. Some of the funds could be taken from money now allocated to the federal compensatory education program, which has not systematically improved the academic achievement of the disadvantaged students to whom it was originally targeted.19