The Policy Shop: Chicago’s poverty paradox

The Policy Shop: Chicago’s poverty paradox

This edition of The Policy Shop is by Head of Policy Joshua Bandoch.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson told the U.S. Congress in 1964 he was declaring the War on Poverty, he did not set out a vision for an America in which over $12 trillion in taxes would be spent over more than 60 years to create generations of people dependent on the government to make their poverty more bearable. He did not dream of poverty remaining at a static 11-15%.

He saw job training and partnerships with businesses. He saw work, not a handout, as poverty’s solution.

But dependence and desperation are how 450,000 Chicagoans live. Chicago’s poverty rate was 12% in 1960, ahead of Johnson’s War on Poverty. It’s now at 17.2%.

Poverty policies are not just failing the poor and disadvantaged in Chicago and elsewhere, they are aggravating society’s problems. Families fail to form when one of the adults is poorly educated and unemployed. The lack of a job denies dignity and meaning to too many lives. That lack of purpose fuels deaths of desperation aided by alcohol, drugs and suicide.

That’s wrong, needs to change and can.

Amid the failed policies and unnecessary suffering is reason for tremendous hope we can solve poverty, especially in Chicago and other urban environments.

From left-of-center think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, Urban Institute and Progressive Policy Institute, to right-of-center public policy groups such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Alliance for Opportunity, there exists remarkable consensus on how to empower individuals to rise out poverty and into prosperity.

What is it?

Substantial consensus exists around seven “macro”-solutions to poverty:

  1. Empower people through the dignity of work.
  2. Prepare individuals for the future of work through education and workforce development – an issue widely overlooked by researchers.
  3. Remove barriers to work, especially occupational licensing and burdensome regulations.
  4. Ensure the educational system prepares students for careers through improved quality and more effective workforce development programs such as apprenticeships.
  5. Restructure safety net programs to empower people to rise out of poverty, including through rigorous program evaluation.
  6. Promote affordable housing, including through zoning reform.
  7. Promote family formation and stability, including by making it easier for people to follow the “success sequence” of education, job, marriage and then children.

None of the seven solutions are easy in a city where government is the problem as often as the solution and where public education fails about three-quarters of the children. But all the solutions are achievable.

The brighter promise is if poverty can be solved for 450,000 people in Chicago, then there is hope for the other 37.5 million Americans in poverty that LBJ’s vision has failed to reach.

We can still win the War on Poverty, but it will be through the help of education and jobs – not the dependency of government handouts.

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