By Paul Ryan
One day at Pulaski High School in Milwaukee, a fight broke out between two students. The staff separated them, but one of the students, a young woman named Marianna, refused to relent. She continued to fight--now with the staff--and to cause a stir. Then a call went out over the school radio for "Lulu" to respond. Soon, Marianna began to calm down. Once she arrived, Lulu quickly defused the situation. Of all the people at Pulaski High--all the teachers and administrators--only one person got through to Marianna that day, and it was Lulu.
"Lulu" is Mrs. Louisa, one of five youth advisers in Pulaski High's Violence-Free Zone program. Along with program head Andre Robinson and site supervisor Naomi Perez, they work as a band of roving mentors. On a typical day, you'll find them walking the halls in black polo shirts. They chat with students, break up fights and help with homework. Most of them are recent alumni who grew up in the inner city, and they have the scars to prove it. They've been part of gangs. They've seen violence firsthand.
But they don't have education degrees or state certification. They have something more important: credibility. The youth advisers understand what the students are going through because they've had the same struggles. That credibility creates trust, and so the students listen to them. In the two years since the program started, suspensions at Pulaski High are down by 60%, and daily attendance is up by nearly 10%. Fourteen gangs used to roam the school grounds; today, they've all but disappeared. The school tried all sorts of things to keep students safe--more police presence, more cameras. But only this program worked.
Mrs. Louisa, Mrs. Perez and Mr. Robinson aren't just keeping kids in school; they're fighting poverty on the front lines. If you graduate from high school, you're much less likely to end up poor. According to the Census Bureau, a high-school graduate makes $10,000 a year more, on average, than a high-school dropout, and a college graduate makes $36,000 more. Ever since that day at Pulaski High, Marianna has improved her grades and now she is looking at colleges. Yet for all its professed concern about families in need, Washington is more concerned with protecting the status quo than with pursuing what actually works.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. For years, politicians have pointed to the money they've spent or the programs they've created. But despite trillions of dollars in spending, 47 million Americans still live in poverty today. And the reason is simple: Poverty isn't just a form of deprivation; it's a form of isolation. Crime, drugs and broken families are dragging down millions of Americans. On every measure from education levels to marriage rates, poor families are drifting further away from the middle class.
And Washington is deepening the divide. Over the past 50 years, the federal government has created different programs to fix different problems, so there's little or no coordination among them. And because these programs are means-tested--meaning that families become ineligible for them as they earn more--poor families effectively face very high marginal tax rates, in some cases over 80%. So the government actually discourages them from getting ahead.
Poverty isn't a rare disease from which the rest of us are immune. It's the worst strain of a widespread scourge: economic insecurity. That's why concern for the poor isn't a policy niche; it goes to the heart of the American experiment. What the poor really need is to be reintegrated into our communities. But Washington is walling them up in a massive quarantine.
On this less-than-golden anniversary, we should renew the fight. The federal government needs to take a comprehensive view of the problem. It needs to dump decades-old programs and give poor families more flexibility. It needs to let communities like Pulaski High develop their own solutions. And it needs to remember that the best anti-poverty program is economic growth.
As my friend Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) likes to say, we need to bring the poor in--to expand their access to our country's free enterprise and civil society. Luckily, policy makers in states and other countries are doing just that. Here's a look at some of the latest advances in the fight against poverty.
* In welfare, rely on simplicity and standards. In 2012, Great Britain approved a far-reaching reform called the Universal Credit. The government is now putting this idea into practice, and it's going through a rough patch. But the basic concept is sound. Britain collapsed six means-tested programs into one overall payment. And unlike the old programs, which abruptly cut off once a family made a certain amount of money, the Universal Credit tapers off gradually. But the payment isn't a giveaway. Every recipient, except the disabled, must either have a job or be actively looking for one.
We have some experience with this idea in our own country. In 1996, Congress required people on welfare to work, and the results were encouraging. Child-poverty rates fell by double digits. The trouble is, we haven't applied this principle far enough.
* In education, give teachers more control, and give parents a choice. Some of the most exciting work in education has occurred in Indiana. Three years ago, then-governor Mitch Daniels shepherded through the legislature several bold reforms.
Before the reforms, union-negotiated contracts required teachers to earn compensation based on seniority, not performance, and the contracts dictated all aspects of the classroom experience, from the humidity level in the school to the number of hours a teacher must spend with students. Under the new laws, teachers' pay is based on performance. In exchange, they have more control over the classroom. Collective bargaining covers only wages and benefits, so teachers can tailor the curriculum to the needs of their students.
Low-income families are also now eligible for tuition vouchers on a sliding scale, and the reforms allow parents unhappy with a low-performing public school to turn it into a charter school with the approval of their local school board.
* In job training, put people who need jobs with people who create them. The problem with federal job-training programs is that they often train workers for jobs that don't exist. According to a 2012 report by Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), the Job Corps spent up to $76,000 per trainee, and the trainees didn't necessarily like where they ended up. The program placed culinary students as pest-control workers and nurse assistants as cashiers.
Last year, Gov. Scott Walker (R., Wis.) started the Wisconsin Fast Forward initiative, which will allow employers, rather than the state, to develop job-training programs. Employers will apply for state grants and train workers in the skills they need. The state will seek out programs that offer broadly applicable credentials, like a certificate from a trade organization, and keep tabs on their performance to see if they improve hiring and wages.
Other areas ripe for reform include health care, criminal justice and federal regulations. After all, the cultural antibodies that heal communities are already present and hard at work. For policy makers, the question is, how do we spread their influence? What barriers do we remove? What incentives do we put in place? And to whom do we look for guidance--government bureaucrats or community leaders?
For 50 years, we've been going in the wrong direction, and liberals want to march on. Some in Washington insist that you're concerned for the poor only if you're committed to a path that has failed the poor. But the question isn't whether we should do more or less of the same. It is which new direction will work best.