Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Symposium offers sober evaluation of poverty — and some solutions

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The entire program (audio and video) is available as a podcast.

Presentation slides

By Terry Shelton, Outreach Director

"We need to find the gems and figure out how to replicate them and take them to scale."

That was the advice of poverty expert Harry Holzer, a Georgetown professor of public policy, at the conclusion of a half-day conference on "Urban Men in Poverty: Problems and Solutions" held April 24 at Marquette Law School.

Holzer was the last of five professors whose research on the issue of urban poverty was featured in the 2015 La Follette Spring Symposium, which was supported by a partnership with the Marquette Law School.

Holzer gave his advice after hearing the data and research of the other four panelists who identified large and urgent problems and a variety of programs that offer solutions. Those gems, he said, are the ones to work from.

The program was kicked off by professor Geoffrey Wallace of the La Follette School, the conference organizer, who provided extensive insights into facts and figures on the issues, including reasons for focusing on men and on urban centers in studying these issues. Wallace described "a mass retreat from employment for less skilled men" in recent times, a trend that is particularly strong among African American men.

Professor Charles Franklin of Marquette Law School then presented data on the high percentage of young men who are arrested and incarcerated by their mid-30s and how that negatively impacts their prospects for employment and stable lives. Franklin, who is director of the Marquette Law School Poll, also presented results from the poll that related policies on providing services to low income people.

Next Professor David Pate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Department of Social Work, reported on his work over more than two decades examining in great detail the lives of men living in poverty. (His original work is going into a series of articles that will contain his slides and specific findings. They are on the webcast but not included in this report at his request.)

Finally, Professor Mike Massoglia of the UW-Madison Department of Sociology described the devastating impact of incarceration and correction policy on neighborhoods.

While much of the sobering tone of research showed deeply ingrained and seemingly insolvable problems that are decades in the making, hope was present, too.

For one thing, the fact that such a gathering occurred was a promising sign, Marquette University President Mike Lovell told the audience of more than 200.

"The only way we're going to face and overcome the problems of urban men in poverty is by working together," Lovell said, noting that the event was the first collaboration between La Follette and Marquette Law School. Lovell suggested this was an example of the kind of partnerships that are needed to create change. He said he was excited so many people with serious interest gathered to show commitment to pursing solutions.

Professor Susan Yackee, the director of the La Follette School, offered similar remarks and recognized the leadership of Law School Dean Joseph Kearney on the issue.

"I can't overstate the effort and concern that Dean Kearney and President Lovell bring to this issue," she said. "We at the La Follette School are honored to work with them on solving one of society's thorniest issues. "

She also acknowledged the work that President Lovell has begun with his Near West Side Partnership and "the exciting prospects of new public and private resources flowing into nearby neighborhoods that easily parallel the issues we are discussing today."

She said she was especially pleased to be able to offer the broad expertise of the La Follette faculty. "Our faculty is known around the country for doing some of the best cutting-edge research and scholarship on social policy and poverty. We are grateful to have a platform to share that," she said.

Concluding the presentations, Holzer offered the most hopeful notes. "Does anything work?" he asked, after describing how factors such as a weaker job market in recent years were making it harder to find paths to an improved overall picture.

He went on to list ideas that he said had had rigorous evaluation and some positive impact. These included social and emotional intelligence programs for youths, youth mentoring, better vocational education for high school age and post-high school age males, and job corps programs. He urged more work on programs to reduce teen age pregnancy and to improve the involvement of fathers in their children's lives. He said some initiatives of the Obama administration on fronts such as managing child support payment arrearages and improving employment services are showing promise.

He said many low-income youths became "disconnected," not involved in either education or work, which leads to trouble frequently. "It's a lot more effective to try to prevent disconnection than to try to reconnect someone who's already disappeared from these roles," Holzer said.

Holzer concluded: "There's a lot of reasons to be discouraged from these numbers, but there's also reason to be at least a little bit hopeful. … For those of you who have spent your careers working on these issues, I salute you for your efforts. Hang in there. We all need to hang in there and keep chipping away at these problems because under the right circumstances, at least some of them can get better."

Alan Borsuk of Marquette Law School contributed to this report.

Last modified on Wednesday, April 29, 2015