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New York Times Room for Debate


Focus on Intergenerational Mobility

January 05, 2014

By Scott Winship

We have been more successful at reducing poverty than left or right believes. Arloc Sherman of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the poverty rate declined from 19 percent to 11 percent between 1964 and 2011. The household at the 20th percentile of income distribution — poorer than 80 percent of households — is 40 percent to 65 percent richer today than in 1967.

These figures are more striking than conventional statistics for several technical reasons, most notably because the official poverty and income measures from the Census Bureau do not take noncash benefits into account. So food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid go uncounted, despite being fundamental weapons in our war on poverty. Because of these technical issues, because the left is invested in the idea that things are perpetually bad and getting worse, and because the right is reticent to admit government success, Americans are mostly unaware of this significant reduction in hardship. Contrary to President Ronald Reagan’s claim, we did not lose the war on poverty.

But it was a limited victory. Great Society liberals believed that if we attacked poverty, we would also defeat intergenerational immobility. The poor, it was assumed, are just like other Americans, only poorer. Give them more money, Great Society liberalism said, and opportunity would follow.

But while intergenerational mobility has not worsened, it has failed to improve. Perhaps it would have worsened if not for the war on poverty, or perhaps we have not reduced poverty enough. More likely, income is less important for child mobility — and income inequality less consequential — than Great Society liberalism asserted.

We need a war on immobility — a bipartisan crusade to identify and address the barriers that leave 70 percent of poor children below the middle class as adults. We should be prepared to spend more money in this war to find effective models that promote mobility, but we should also commit to shuttering ineffective programs and to reforming the senior entitlements that will crowd out spending on the poor.

And we will have to recognize the limits of what money can buy; expanding opportunity for poor kids will require that we "incentivize" the right behaviors, attitudes and values, through economic carrots and sticks. Culture, not just economics, must be a front in the war on immobility.

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