Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Friday, October 30, 2009

Book examines poverty, policy reforms

A new book called Changing Poverty, Changing Policies co-edited by professor Maria Cancian assesses why the War on Poverty was not won and analyzes the most promising strategies to reduce poverty in the 21st century economy.

Cover of book Changing Poverty, Changing Policies

Changing Poverty, Changing Policies continues the seminal book series on poverty policy and research that includes four earlier volumes that have tracked poverty and poverty policy from the 1960s on: A Decade of Federal Antipoverty Programs: Achievements, Failures, and Lessons (1977); Fighting Poverty: What Works and What Doesn't (1986); Confronting Poverty: Prescriptions for Change (1994); and Understanding Poverty (2001).

Cancian, co-editor Sheldon Danziger of the University of Michigan and leading poverty researchers review a wide range of public policy reforms aimed at increasing the employment and earnings of low-income individuals,helping parents better balance work and family obligations, and raising the educational attainment and skills of the next generation.

The book includes contributions from several La Follette School faculty members and affiliates. Professor Robert Haveman argues that income-based poverty measures should be expanded, as they have been in Europe, to include social exclusion and multiple dimensions of material hardships. Affiliate Daniel R. Meyer and professor Geoffrey L. Wallace put poverty levels and trends in comparative perspective. Affiliate Katherine Magnuson and co-author Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal examine the enduring influences of childhood poverty.

The book, published by the Russell Sage Foundation, is based on papers presented by some of the nation's top poverty and policy researchers at a University of Wisconsin–Madison conference hosted by the Institute for Research on Poverty in May 2008,an event that capped Cancian's four-year term as IRP director. "The authors outline a range of important proposals, many of which are directly relevant to current policy debates in the United States,"Cancian says.

Changing Poverty, Changing Policies documents how economic, social, demographic and public policy changes since the early 1970s have altered who is poor and where antipoverty initiatives have kept pace or fallen behind. Poverty declined significantly in the decade after President Lyndon Johnson's 1964declaration of "War on Poverty." Dramatically increased federal funding for education and training programs, social security benefits and other income supports coupled with a growing economy led to reduced poverty and raised expectations that income poverty could be eliminated within a generation. Yet the official poverty rate has never fallen below its1973 level and remains higher than the rates in many other advanced economies.

Part 1 shows that little progress has been made in reducing poverty, except among older adults, since the 1970s.The chapters examine how changing labor market opportunities for less-educated workers have increased their risk of poverty and how family structure changes and immigration have affected poverty. Part 2assesses the ways childhood poverty influences adult outcomes. The chapters document that increased government benefits and early childhood education can improve the long-term life chances of poor children and that poor American children are more likely to be poor adults than are children in many other industrialized countries.

Part 3 focuses on current antipoverty policies and possible alternatives. The authors demonstrate that policies in other countries — such as sick leave, subsidized child care and schedule flexibility — help low-wage parents better balance work and family responsibilities. They also evaluate health-care programs and propose reforms to better meet the needs of families. Part 4considers how rethinking and redefining poverty might take antipoverty policies in new directions.

"Changing Poverty,Changing Policies shows that thoughtful policy reforms can reducepoverty and promote opportunities for poor workers and their families,"Cancian says. "Not only does the new book provide vital knowledge aboutwhat works, it offers real hope for change."