Before I ask for a drum roll and reveal “the secrets” of fighting poverty, a bit of background:
For a quarter-century after World War II, the United States made great progress against poverty. Then in the 1970s, it fumbled. Over the last 35 years, the American economy has almost tripled in size, but, according to the United States Census Bureau, the number of Americans living below the poverty line has been stuck at roughly 1 in 8.
“To make a difference, we have to do things that actually work,” said Gordon Berlin, the president of MDRC, a research organization that pioneered the use of randomized trials to evaluate poverty-fighting strategies. “In the last 15 to 20 years, we’ve begun to build a compelling body of evidence that policymakers and program operators can act on.”
Here’s a peek at some of the interventions that seem to make a difference (and there are many more):
— High-quality early childhood programs, before kids get behind. Much-studied examples include the Perry Preschool program in Michigan in the 1960s and the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina in the 1970s. Both worked with impoverished children who had much better outcomes than control groups. For example, those who had been through the Perry program were — as adults, decades later — only half as likely to go on welfare and much less likely to be arrested.
— Intensive efforts in the ninth grade (which is well known as education’s Bermuda Triangle, swallowing up poor students). A program called Talent Development in Philadelphia gave ninth graders a double dose of math and English and reduced absenteeism and significantly improved performance for at least the next couple of years. Tentative results suggest it is also improving high school graduation rates.
— Career academies. These keep students engaged in high school by teaching around career themes and partnering with local employers to give kids work experience. Eight years of follow-up research suggests that graduates are more likely to hold jobs and earn more money.
— Jobs programs. One of the most successful is the “jobs-plus” demonstration, which trains people living in public housing to get jobs and gives them extra incentives to keep them. Participants thrive — and the gains continue even years later, after the program ends.
The two most important interventions seem to be education and jobs. Schooling programs pay off from early childhood all the way through community college. And jobs programs lift entire families: Even though one might worry about children getting less supervision with parents working, studies suggest that children then do better at school.
This wave of research suggests that there’s no magic bullet, that helping people is hard, and that even when pilot programs succeed they can be difficult to scale up. But evidence also suggests that we increasingly have the tools to chip away at poverty. We know what to do if we just can summon the political will.