A Turning Point for Poverty Policy?

Happy winter

As 2015 swings into full gear, with resolutions to keep and pounds to lose (delicious riddance, ye annual box of Frango mints), we want to take a moment to thank all our clients and colleagues for making 2014 a turning point for HiredPen. It was a big year for us. We expanded our staff, hiring two full-time writers, Kathleen and Natalie. We opened an office in Berkeley to join our office in Chicago. And we added several new, exciting projects, including Build Healthy Places, a project at the intersection of public health and community development; the Mindsets Scholars Network; and work with New America and the Packard Foundation on early education policy in California.

It’s a special privilege to get to write about ideas every day, and it’s even more amazing to get to write about ideas that change people’s lives.


So what do these ideas portend for 2015? I’ve been covering US poverty policy for 15 years, and it strikes me that 2014 might have been a turning point for new thinking about this age-old problem in America.

Three trends that took root in 2014 give me hope:

  1. Shift way from silos (in both funding and solutions)—because poverty does not happen in isolation, so why do we attack it as if it does?
  2. Evidence: As Ron Haskins writes in his new book, “Show Me the Evidence,” the Obama administration has gotten behind the push to link funding to programs that work, and that can prove it.
  3. Daring ideas: New thinking from new corners on how to change people’s lives, from Nudges to Social Impact Bonds.


During the welfare reform years in the mid-1990s, it was all about personal accountability. No more “welfare queens” milking the system, as Ronald Reagan so famously put it. Work mandates and time limits would make welfare a temporary safety net, and key supports (job training, child care) would help recipients become former recipients on their way up the job ladder, never to need a safety net again (lucky for them, because that safety net was quickly disappearing anyway).

But poverty is not a problem only of individual accountability. Welfare alone does not contribute to poverty, as some argued. If that were the case, the poverty rate should be lower today after the 1996 reforms. It is not. TANF caseloads, however, are. By 2013, poverty rates had returned to 14.5%, exactly what they were in 1994, and the child poverty rate was 20%, a smidge lower than 1994 (21.8%). Meanwhile, TANF caseloads today are averaging 3.5 million in 2013, compared with 14.2 million in 1994. In about one-half of those 2013 cases, only children received benefits.

7514543478_b0a9d1b8e8_zPoverty, it turns out, is not just about an unwillingness to work. Poverty is the combination of poor schools, poor housing in poor and overlooked neighborhoods, poor health, limited choices, lack of hope, and closed doors.

While experts have long known the interconnected cause and effects at play among poor families, it wasn’t until recently that they began working together on the problems. Experts in community development began working together with the experts in public health, housing departments began working with urban designers, juvenile justice systems began working with mental health professionals, and policymakers began talking with researchers. There’s a long way to go, but at least the collaboration has begun. (We’ll be reporting on this kind of collaboration this year with  Build Healthy Places Network.)

At the same time, the Obama administration launched the Social Innovation Fund, which is seeking new ways of funding social programs by drawing in private-sector players to finance programs with proven track records. “Pay for success” and “social impact” financing tools gained ground as these new investors demanded evidence that their investment would bring a return. This, to me, is an exciting shift. Private funding is desperately needed in today’s budget climate, and putting both private and public money behind programs we know work–or that show great promise–is a game changer. We’ll need watchdogs, lest we run into the rush to privatization that we’ve seen in charter schools (ala Jeb Bush), but so far, the philanthropies and investors are from both sides of the ideological aisle.

Amid the gridlock and truthiness in Washington, it’s heartening to know that people like our clients are moving the needle on this difficult, critical issue, and one idea at a time, are working to make people’s lives better.

Here’s a few of those very ideas that we’ve covered this past year

The spread of poverty to the suburbs.

With great fanfare, the Atlantic Monthly proclaimed in July 1992, “The Suburban Century Begins.” The country had recently tipped to majority suburban, and the article’s author, William Schneider, was certain that “city” was over. How wrong he was. Today, the suburbs are aging, malls are being shuttered, and in a stunning reversal, suburban communities are dealing with the same issues that central cities have long struggled to address: poverty and its devastating reverberations. We covered these shifts from Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube at the Brookings Institution in their blog, Confronting Suburban Poverty. There’s no one easy answer, but coordinated efforts across municipal boundaries to build the capacity to tackle this growing issue is a must.

New ways to engage children in deeper learning

We’ve been covering this topic for the Sprout Fund in Pittsburgh, an exciting citywide effort to tap into the many resources cities offer for learning. These resources include the Maker Movement and hands-on learning, embodied learning, game-based learning, as well as the key role of Art in STEM.

New approaches to education reform

Following on the idea first raised by Michael Porter in the “cluster” approach to economic development, Pittsburgh has been developing an “education cluster” that combines the power of local universities such as Carnegie Mellon, the city’s schools, and the many inventive out-of-school resources and cultural institutions in the city. The network is spurring new thinking and creating new pathways to learning for kids that tap the city’s many resources, both people and places.

The urban moment

Cities, said eminent urban scholar Kenneth T. Jackson, are “the most exciting things happening today.” But not all is rosy in this “urban moment.” Gentrification and  “legacy issues” such as poverty, racism, crime, segregation, lagging schools, and inequality remain pressing problems. We took up some of these issues for the University of Chicago Urban Network:

Gentrification and schools: Some say “housing policy is education policy”—but is that true? Do mixed-income, gentrifying communities automatically improve schools? 
DIY Urbanism: Tactical urbanism’s motto is “see problem, fix it,” but its elitist instinct can rub some the wrong way.

The role of technology in young children’s lives

There’s much debate and worry about the effect of technology on young children. But some smart research is showing that, as always, there’s good and bad, and moderation and common sense are key. We covered the topic for the New America Foundation and the Fred Rogers Center.

How text messages can “nudge” families to build toddlers’ literacy
What Mister Rogers can tell us about today’s screen time for kids

The fiscal policy of cities

A “big data” task underway at University of Illinois is creating case studies of the constraints 100 US cities face in raising revenue and balancing budgets. We’re covering the progress on their blog.

The integral role of housing and neighborhood in tackling poverty

We wrote about the tight link between housing and family opportunity in a series of research briefs for the MacArthur Foundation.

The ever-changing demographics of America and what it means for politics and policy

We helped edit the latest book by Brookings Institution demographer, William Frey,  Diversity Explosion

The gorgeous, powerful, endangered Great Lakes, and their potential to spur regional economic collaboration

We spent two days in Chicago with the Urban Land Institute and Owens Skidmore Merrill chronicling how the Great Lakes cities could unite in a regional economic development effort. The report is still in development, but a recap of event gives some flavor.

We love nothing more than to engage with these big ideas and help promote the amazing work that our clients do. We’ve been told that it’s this engagement and our ability to see across the related topics that make our work unique in the world of communications. Our credo is “research well told” and we hope to continue pursuing that aim in 2015.


Ready to learn more? Get in touch.