This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Battling Poverty--Is Poverty Winning?

Each of the world's major religions recognizes the existence of poverty in human society and encourages those with more to share with those who have less. Modern governments have been working on the problem with various degrees of success for two hundred years or more (think about the English Poor Laws that Malthus opposed, even though it turned out later that his objections were misplaced). In the US the first real effort to systematically deal with poverty was the passage of the Social Security Act in the 1930s to relieve the rising poverty among America's elders. Then came the War on Poverty in the 1960s and it was at this time that the Department of Agriculture introduced the official US poverty index, as I discuss in Chapter 10. In the 1980s, though, Ronald Reagan famously said that we had a war on poverty and poverty won. Not so fast! As Nicolas Kristoff very succinctly points out in today's NYTimes, the battle against poverty has actually been pretty successful, and now is no time to give up on it. Rather, we need to rethink and retrench.
The most accurate measures, using Census Bureau figures that take account of benefits, suggest that poverty rates have fallen by more than one-third since 1968. There’s a consensus that without the war on poverty, other forces (such as mass incarceration, a rise in single mothers and the decline in trade unions) would have lifted poverty much higher.
A Columbia University study suggests that without government benefits, the poverty rate would have soared to 31 percent in 2012. Indeed, an average of 27 million people were lifted annually out of poverty by social programs between 1968 and 2012, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
The best example of how government antipoverty programs can succeed involves the elderly. In 1960, about 35 percent of older Americans were poor. In 2012, 9 percent were. That’s because senior citizens vote, so politicians listened to them and buttressed programs like Social Security and Medicare.
The rise in single motherhood is a very important issue, in my mind, and while teenage pregnancy rates have dropped significantly over time, the popularity of a show like "16 and Pregnant" is still a bit scary to me, even though the idea of the show is to demonstrate what a bad idea this is. More importantly, the war on women's reproductive rights generally works to undermine the war on poverty, by making it harder for women to avoid an unwanted pregnancy in an era when men are far too inclined not to acknowledge paternity and thus leave the mother to bear the sole burden of child-rearing. I agree with Kristoff that poverty among children is the key issue, leading us to remember that it really does take a village (defined perhaps more broadly as a societal commitment) to raise a child successfully so that poverty can be left behind. That's not socialism--it's called human society.

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