A different take on poverty

Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, was this month’s speaker at DHS’ Practice and Policy Lecture Series. Haskins looked at causes and offered solutions to the persistence of poverty in the United States. He attributed poverty to four main causes:

  1. Low rates of working and low wage rates. Only 83 percent of working-age adults had full-time jobs in 2008, down from 89 percent in 1980. The rate is dramatically lower, 42 percent, for African-Americal males. Haskins attributes the increase for that group in part to higher incarceration rates and blames relatively generous welfare and retirement systems for some of the general decline in working rate. At the same time, low- and middle-income workers are not seeing meaningful gains in wages.
  2. Changing family composition. The marriage rate has declined greatly, mainly for less-educated women. Forty-one percent of births are now to single mothers, almost all of them with less than a college education. Given the clear link between single-mother family status and child poverty, Haskins suggested higher marriage rates would reduce poverty.
  3. Low educational attainment and poor outcomes. Income of adults who don’t attend college  typically tracks closely with their parents’ income, but the relationship breaks down for adult children with a college education. Because poor children have low rates of college attendance and completion, few will be able to break this cycle.
  4. Immigration. While we admit many highly-educated and successful immigrants, the majority of immigrants have very low education attainment. Haskins claims this in itself adds 0.5 percentage points or more to the poverty rate.

Haskins sums up his findings and frames his solutions with this relatively simple statistic: If you finish high school, work full time, and wait until you are married and 21 years old to have a child, your chances of being below the poverty line are 2 percent. If you don’t finish high school, don’t work full time, and have a child before you’re married and 21, your chances of being poor are 74 percent.

Haskins prescribes a three-pronged approach to reducing poverty. First, we should increase educational attainment and performance by investing in education from early childhood through higher education. Second, we should get more Americans working full-time by encouraging work. He credits the Earned Income Tax Credit and welfare reform with moving in the right direction and claims they have helped increase income for many families, especially low-income female-headed ones. He suggests we need to go further in requiring work to participate in food and housing benefit programs, investing more in vocational education and employment-related training for adults, and investing more in child care. Third, we should encourage marriage; Haskins admitted there are effective programs developed that will do this but suggests we need to develop them. He and coauthor Isabel Sawhill offer specific recommendations, and a plan to pay for them, in Creating an Opportunity Society.

Haskins’ lecture was thought-provoking and generated a lively discussion. There’s something in his approach to make most observers happy and to make most unhappy as well. In an environment where public investment in welfare and education programs often brings disappointing results, it is certainly worth exploring different approaches. We commend DHS for bringing Haskins to Oklahoma and providing a forum for a much-needed exchange on important long-term issues facing our nation and state. Guests for the spring lecture series include Oklahoma Health Care Authority Chief Executive Officer Michael Fogarty, speaking on the economics of health care reform, UCLA’s Adriana Lleras-Muney on “Education and Health: What do we Know?,” updates from nationally renowned program evaluators, and other great programs. You can find a schedule and description here.


Paul Shinn

Paul Shinn served as Budget and Tax Senior Policy Analyst with OK Policy from May 2019 until December 2021. Before joining OK Policy, Shinn held budget and finance positions for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the Department of Human Services, the cities of Oklahoma City and Del City and several local governments in his native Oregon. He also taught political science and public administration at the University of Oklahoma, University of Central Oklahoma, and California State University Stanislaus. While with the Government Finance Officers Association, Paul worked on consulting and research projects for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and several state agencies and local governments. He also served as policy analyst for CAP Tulsa. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from University of Oklahoma and degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland College Park. He lives in Oklahoma City with his wife Carmelita.

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