Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Center for the Study of Social Policy: Lessons from the War on Poverty

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty, ushering in new initiatives and investments to help meet the needs of the poor. There has been much debate on the success or failure of these efforts. What isundeniable is that Johnson’s set of policy initiatives involved bold thinking and creative strategies.

Innovative changes for the time included an overhaul to our food and nutrition programs, improving healthcare access and utilization and a previously unmatched effort to help students pay for higher education.

These initiatives are still critical parts of this nation’s safety net for poor families. Unfortunately, today, many of these investments face significant cuts and political challenges. In a time of widening equity gaps we need to bolster our investments in the successful programs we have already put in place instead of constantly undermining them. In fact, this is the time for more. For a bigger vision, matched with real investments.

We must use today’s knowledge to make our own innovative strides to meaningfully address poverty. It is unacceptable that 22 percent of all children – and an even higher rate of children of color - live in poverty. We allneed to think about ways to contribute to the new ideas necessary for real change.

At the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), we believe there are many critical opportunities for developing and progressing new ideas and strategies. Among them, promoting comprehensive supports for children, for families and for communities, advancing equity in every aspect of policymaking and developing solutions that meet the needs of those families facing multiple barriers to success.

Removing Roadblocks
The burden of coordination should not be placed on poor families – but should be advanced through better organized government. Solutions should be streamlined at the federal, state and local level, allowing poor families to receive services and supports in ways that do not include competing or contradictory requirements, unreasonable timelines or overly prescriptive programing. Some of these principles are beginning to take shape through neighborhood-focused investments. Leveraging existing assets in communities and targeting investments to a specific place is a more effective approach to supporting high-poverty communities. When investments take into account the valuable resources – including human and social capital – that already exist, are coordinated with a range of community stakeholders and remove obstacles for people, they become more sustainable and likely more successful.

Advancing Equity
Racial and ethnic minorities face significant disparities in education, health, employment and social and economic mobility. If this continues, we will both undermine the values we hold as a country and lose the chance to capitalize on the significant advantages of our increasingly diverse population. Pursuing anti-poverty policy strategies that directly take into account the existence of disparate opportunities and outcomes for people of color is the best way to meet our broader societal goals – and the only way to significantly reduce poverty. This work should be done, not only in programs and policies where there is an explicit impact on people of color, but in every aspect of policy work.

Strengthening Families
It is critical to focus on families facing the most significant obstacles. For example, while the majority of children, youth and families living in poverty never come to the attention of the child welfare system, those who are reported for alleged child neglect - and those families who remain involved for extended periods - are often the ones whose financial struggles are exacerbated by social isolation, housing instability, mental health issues and other barriers. Coordinated policy innovations that help families in child welfare meet concrete needs can be a means of prevention – as well as a means for ensuring families are both socially and financially stable. This is a critical way to successfully address the causes and impact of poverty.

Poverty is a complicated issue. One that still affects far too many children, families and communities. There is no simple solution, but as we reflect on where we are 50 years later, one thing is clear. We cannot be afraid to act due to complexity. CSSP is committed through all of our work to advocate for and promote innovative policy and program strategies that eliminate inequities and ensure the well-being of children, families and communities.

Want to learn more about how to promote policies and strategies that strengthen families and communities?  Check out

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