February 27

ANOTHER VIEW: Public policy shouldn’t be made by anecdote

Dean Crocker

I read with considerable dismay Liz Soares thoughts about the problem of inter-generational poverty in our country (commentary, “We all can improve our lot in life if we’re willing to work at it,” Feb. 23).

Her comments are a good example of “common knowledge” gained in the aisles of the supermarket or over the back fence — easy to accept but totally lacking in substance.

Organizations such as the Maine Children’s Alliance have been providing data about poverty for more than 20 years. The facts suggest that most people move off governmental assistance when they have alternatives. For example, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) data show that the average recipient receives assistance for about two years.

I think most of us know that Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches stories were fiction. Yes, a tiny percent of people in poverty do become 1 percenters. The vast majority, made up mainly of women and minorities, do not. Once again, the data suggest several good reasons for the barriers:

• Children in poverty households generally perform poorly in school. The latest brain research suggests that poverty negatively affects brain development in areas critical to learning.

• Most available jobs do not pay a “living” wage (a wage that brings the family out of poverty) or require education and/or training dependent on success in school.

• Most people who live in poverty actually do work.

• Governmental support for poverty programs has been declining, while tax breaks for upper-income groups have increased. Long-standing research has shown that investment is not driven by tax breaks.

• The overall performance of the institution most directly related to economic success (education) has been declining. A minority of our students performs acceptably on the basic skill of reading. (For more information, see “Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters” from the Annie E. Casey Foundation available at its website, www.aecf.org).

So, yes it is easy to say, “Stop buying lobsters and work hard!” It is more difficult for us to become informed and base our understanding on solid data. Were that to happen, we might make the “societal change” Soares suggests is dependent on poor people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps (if they had any to pull on).

Our future as a society and our children’s success is dependent on our ability to stop making public policy by anecdote. Real change will mean an uncomfortable examination of the real barriers to success facing our poorest families and children.

Dean Crocker of Augusta retired after 44 years experience in children’s services, including 10 years at the Maine Children’s Alliance and as a local and national consultant in children’s services federal finance and public policy, and 10 years as director of what is now the Disability Rights Center.
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