On Robert Samuelson’s latest on poverty, I wanted to add a couple of points to my colleague Dean Baker’s excellent piece —which I see was posted at 6 am today, which just shows you have to get up pretty early in the morning to beat Baker to Samuelson.

Samuelson says: “Regardless of the causes and despite many exceptions, children in single-parent households face a harder future. They’re more likely to drop out of school, get pregnant before age 20 or be unemployed. Poverty becomes self-perpetuating.” This claim ignores the fact that the rise in single-parent families, nearly all of which happened a long time ago, has been accompanied by extraordinary declines in teen pregnancy (now at a record low), solid increases in educational attainment, and big increases in mother’s labor force participation. The typical low-income person today isn’t the idle-high-school-dropout-teenage-parent implied by Samuelson, but a working-class person with a high school degree—and increasingly, post-secondary education beyond high school—who has seen years of stagnant or declining wages. It wasn’t the War on Poverty that failed her or him, it was the approach to economic policy pushed by Samuelson and others like him over the years.

Displaying real political savvy, Samuelson doesn’t just blame women, he also blames Latinos for poverty, arguing in his typical understated manner that: “the massive immigration of unskilled Hispanic workers inflated the ranks of the poor.”

If Samuelson had done any real research on poverty trends, he would have quickly run across this Journal of Economic Perspective piece, Poverty in American: Trends and Explanations, by Hillary Hoynes and colleagues. Here’s their summary:

"...changes in labor market opportunities—measured by median wages, unemployment rates and inequality—predict changes in the poverty rate rather well. Importantly, we find that the lack of improvement in poverty rates despite rising living conditions is due to the stagnant growth in median wages and increasing inequality. Holding all else equal, changes in female labor supply should have reduced poverty further, but an increase in the rate of female heads of families may have worked in the opposite direction. Other factors that are often cited as having important effects on the poverty rate do not appear to play an important role: these include changes in the number and composition of immigrants and changes in the generosity of antipoverty programs."

So no real evidence of “massive immigration inflating poverty” or anti-poverty programs undermining incentives. Yes, single-parent families are less likely to have two-incomes than two-parent ones, but women also increased their employment and education which helped reduce poverty.

When Samuelson says “the War on Poverty’s success at strengthening the social safety net... should not obscure its failure as an engine of self-improvement”, we should be very clear that he’s bashing millions of low-income women and mothers, who have done plenty to improve their lives and their children’s lives, in many cases with the help of War on Poverty initiatives and investments like financial aid, child care, food stamps, and Medicaid.

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