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Once more unto the breach

The new/old poverty debate

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When it comes to reducing poverty, particularly among children, I suspect most WORLD readers share some goals. Give each child the advantage of growing up with a father and a mother. Let children learn that work, even amid thorns, is important, necessary, and good for us. Prepare academically inclined children for college and the nonacademically inclined for work that will glorify God.

Proposals for increased federal poverty spending should be weighed against those goals. Some of them cut against other goals. Since poverty is a factor in some decisions to abort, the feds could give each pregnant woman a wad of cash, but would that buy more single parenting? Child support payments would help those with good work and parenting attitudes, but would they discourage work and encourage irresponsibility among others? School officials could assign high-school students to particular occupational tracks, but don’t parents usually know best?

Since I was heavily involved in Washington welfare reform debates during the 1990s but have been out of them for the past 15 years, I’ve been reading lots of abstruse think tank proposals and then taking some Tylenol. Names and numbers have changed, but the public policy battle is still a fight for love and glory—and the fundamental things still apply, as times go by. Fundamentals: God made man in His own image. God worked six days, and on the seventh day He rested. God created us male and female. A man shall hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Train up a child in the way he should go.

We have not plucked the low-hanging fruit many street-level observers spotted 25 years ago.

The complicated public policy plans are full of assumptions, calculations, permutations, and combinations. Pictorially, they require ascending to the top branches of a tall tree. Meanwhile, we have not plucked the low-hanging fruit many street-level observers, including me, spotted 25 years ago.

Naomi Schaefer Riley and Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute recently summarized some commonsense ways of helping: “What if we had occupational licensing reforms and allowed people to run small businesses out of their home? … What if we changed zoning rules so that families could rent out extra rooms in their homes, or allowed extended families to more easily live together? What if zoning rules didn’t keep residential properties so far away from commercial properties, in turn requiring that children be driven everywhere?”

While politicians propose trillion-dollar plans, Riley and Rachidi propose educational improvements that would be priceless, not pricey: What if “we had real school choice? What if parents didn’t have to worry about buying a more expensive home in order to get their children access to a better school district? Or what if we allowed them to choose a charter school or private school? … What if instead of continuing to subsidize the bloated higher education industry, we simply offered flexible vouchers to low-income students, letting them spend the money in a way that would allow them to gain job skills?”

On that last point Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia professor, notes that “current federal and state funding for higher education totals about $150 billion. But only $1.9 billion in funding is devoted to vocational education in high schools and community colleges. … Too many of our schools discount the potential of less academically minded children. … Far too many high school students—especially young men—spend critical years of their development struggling in classes that bore or overwhelm them and fail to offer them a path to a stable career—much less a clear sense of vocation and direction.”

That’s a tragedy for young adults who “move in and out of dead-end jobs without accumulating the self-confidence and salary that would make them good candidates for marriage. Others drift out of the workforce entirely. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly seven million prime-age men were not looking for work.” The high branches: Create a “universal basic income” that everyone gets, and hope 18-year-olds use it well. The low branches: Create career academies that offer apprenticeships to academically struggling teens.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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Better than UBI would be a voluntary National Service which guarantees a job to every adult -- and pays them for showing up and working.  In some cases paying them "more than they're worth" according to the non-government market. 

One can only earn self-respect by ones own efforts and results.  The biggest problem with UBI is the ease of a minimal life of dependency with little self-respect and little will-power to do any of the work needed to earn respect. So, better than this:

 The high branches: Create a “universal basic income” that everyone gets, and hope 18-year-olds use it well.   

would be

The high branches: Create a society where everybody gets a job, and  earns enough to eat and a place to sleep, in health.  And hope for more responsibility, while making it easier to be responsible.

Alan Versaw

A couple of thoughts here...

In your first paragraph, I'm thinking/hoping you didn't mean to suggest that work that follows on the heels of a college degree is not work that will glorify God, whereas blue-collar work is, but it reads just a bit that way. I do think we send way too many people to college and work with our hands is undervalued in today's culture, but I would maintain that both paths can, but do not necessarily, glorify God.

You mention the American Enterprise Institute recommendation of occupational licensing reform and making it easier for people to work out of their homes without mentioning the vested interest big business has in not letting that happen. Yes, it's low-hanging fruit, but there's a compelling reason why that low-hanging fruit has not been picked.

Regardless, thanks for the piece. We need these discussions.