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History proves that solving poverty requires more than just a silver bullet


Poverty is an issue that dates back to ancient times. In the Christian gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciple Judas: “You will always have the poor among you.”

So what can society do about it?

President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program initiated a “war on poverty.” Back then, the national poverty rate was roughly 19%. Today it’s 14%.

And while liberals believe the country could do more to combat poverty, conservatives argue the government has designed a program that led generations of poor Americans to become dependent on government handouts. They believe many people game the system.

This ideology has led to laws ranging from welfare drug screening to a recent proposal to cut food stamps by half and instead supply nonperishable food items.

H. Luke Shaefer joined Stateside to discuss this issue. He is a poverty expert, author, and associate professor at the University of Michigan.

Listen to the full interview above, or read highlights below.

On the definition of poverty

Shaefer defines poverty, broadly, as the instance in which a family doesn’t have what it needs for a minimum standard of living. The U.S. has been following the same set of poverty threshold standards, updating it for inflation. Originally, Schaefer says, the threshold was based on a minimum food diet that the United States Department of Agriculture thought was necessary for a minimum amount of food.

“It’s not a particularly well-designed measure,” Shaefer said. “We’ve had some updates to it, but in general in the U.S. we think a family of four might be around the poverty threshold at $23,000 to $24,000 a year."

On why there’s poverty in the first place

Shaefer attributes poverty to the general stratification of society – or increasing economic returns among the top earners along with problems among the very bottom. Economics and the changing formation of families, Shaefer said, also contribute to poverty.

On “solving” poverty

“We really say there is no silver bullet because poverty is a big topic,” Shaefer said. “There’s a lot in there. There are people who are just down on their luck and they’re going to be OK next year, and then you have deep inter-generational poverty of families who are poor, whose parents were poor and so many different things, like residential segregation that we know is a big factor in the Detroit area.”

But among those factors, Shaefer points to varying levels of access to higher education and early childhood education, among others.

On how the government can help poor families

“I think policy that’s going to be effective needs to understand that families really do want to work,” Shaefer said, citing Governor Rick Snyder’s Community Ventures program, which partners with employers to create jobs that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

“When we do those sorts of things, people respond and they can be effective,” Shaefer said. “Now when we impose requirements, I think the biggest problems with those is that you do have some families that have a multitude of barriers to being successful in the labor market, and I think many would argue that as a society we should protect those folks too, we should have a safety net that catches you when you fall to the very bottom.”

This story was originally broadcast on Februrary 19, 2018. 

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