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Big Tickets, Blue Ribbons, and Poverty in Cincinnati


By Paul Komarek

Three approaches to poverty in Cincinnati. Will any of them work?

Cincinnati has a poverty problem. We have 86,000 people living at or below the poverty line. We have the 4th highest rate of child poverty in the nation. Local groups are working on the problem, and several approaches are on the table.

Are any of them likely to work?

Option One – The Big Ticket Approach

Higher taxes on the rich. Suppress charter schools. Retake control of public spaces. Abandon public-private partnerships like 3CDC. Bring more low-income housing to the suburbs. Restore low-income units in Over-the-Rhine. End mass incarceration. Restrict movement of capital out of the country. Abandon trade deals that don’t save jobs.  Protect wage levels from the effects of globalization..

Let’s call this the Big Ticket approach to solving poverty.

Community Shares CEO Michelle Dillingham convened a meeting of local progressives this month to discuss policies like these. Most of these policies were once in place in America or in Cincinnati, but they now appear quite radical. To help keep these options on the table, Community Shares produced a series of online videos available here:  In her introduction to the videos, Dillingham reminds us how, over the course of the past few decades,  the anti-poverty debate has pulled away from approaches like these to the point where responsibility for escaping poverty has been pushed directly onto the people who are stuck there.

Nowadays, we tend to focus on antipoverty ideas that operate on a case-by-case basis. You’ve heard them all before. Stay in school. Attend a computer class. Get retrained. Get a better job. Save. Get married. Buy a house. Stay drug-free and out of trouble. All of these are good advice. But these things are hard to implement at scale – and they do not work for everyone.

Dillingham and her allies believe that Big Ticket economic policy approaches can rebalance the system and improve the odds of more people achieving success. There is some wisdom in that. Better economic performance does help some people. The recent economic recovery has reduced the national poverty rate somewhat. Unfortunately, the so-called economic “rising tide” does not lift all boats. If many of the boats are leaking and anchored to the sea bed, rising tides can make things worse.

In my view, the problem is not that that Big Ticket ideas are wrong, but that implementing them will take too long. The shift away from progressive tax, foreign exchange, and education policies took decades. It was engineered by big-money interests. The political struggle required to put these sorts of policies back into place is likely to take decades too. Social progressives might eventually win that war, but until that happens, and even in the years that follow, many people will continue to suffer.

What might work faster? What can rescue people from drowning in poverty today?

Option Two – The Blue Ribbon Approach

Cincinnati’s Mayor John Cranley has taken what might best be described as the Blue Ribbon approach. He has organized a committee of corporate executives, religious leaders, and nonprofit organization CEOs to take on the problem. The Child Poverty Collaborative was announced in October 2015. It convened an expert session in May 2016, and a 600-participant summit meeting in June. A second summit is scheduled for October 29. The plan itself is set to emerge after the November elections. Meanwhile, the RAND Corporation is analyzing our city’s current suite of anti-poverty programs.

All the local heavy hitters are endorsing this project, but local progressives, including Michelle Dillingham, appear less enthused. “We know what the solutions are. We just ask you be open to solutions that are already established,” Dillingham said. “People don’t like these solutions because they make us uncomfortable and challenge institutions.”

Adam Kahane, an international social change expert, said at the time of the May expert session, “The most important trap not to fall into is the idea that a situation like this can be understood and worked on from outside and above. It can’t be. It won’t work.”

Kahane is familiar with the Cincinnati landscape. He participated with his MIT colleague Peter Senge in facilitating the CoreChange Community Summit, a project led by Dr. Victor Garcia of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.  CoreChange launched in 2011, and brought a thousand community members together in a multi-day summit in early 2012 focused on addressing poverty and violence. CoreChange took off strong, with substantial grassroots and institutional support. Unfortunately, the group had trouble implementing many of the ideas it generated.

Kahane’s MIT workgroup favors large group facilitated processes – hence the Child Poverty Collaborative’s new series of summit meetings. Bringing large groups of people together in a creative process can help identify the real difficulties people face, and can help new solutions to emerge.

My concerns about the Blue Ribbon Option have to do with timing, with program content, and with process. The solutions that come from the Blue Ribbon process may be durable and desirable, but they may take another year to get started. My question about content has to do with the RAND study. RAND is analyzing programs we already have. Won’t its report doom us to more of the same?  We can’t solve poverty with a subset of programs and program vendors we already have.

As for process, I simply don’t believe it possible to solve poverty by convening summit meetings. Kahane is right to say that the people who are intended to benefit must be involved in generating solutions. However, there are 86,000 individuals living in poverty in this town, and they don’t often attend summit meetings. We cannot realistically expect to gather meaningful input from people experiencing poverty if we capture their ideas in a summary or superficial fashion. A more appropriate process involves more intensive outreach and field work, work that is not happening in Cincinnati. To hear the voices of people who are experiencing poverty, we must seek them out, meet them where they are, and listen respectfully.

Here is an example of a better process of data collection, a research process that took place in Baltimore.

In 2010, the authors interviewed 150 black young men and women who were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s to parents who lived in public housing. They spent hours with the youth, talking to them in cars, in McDonald’s, in front stoops. In 2012, they followed up with 20 who were representative of the group. Coincidentally, they had interviewed the parents of one-third of the young adults through a separate study launched in 2003.

The result of this research was published this year in a book called Coming of Age in the Other America.

I have one additional concern about the Child Poverty Collaborative. It is only trying to solve a small part of the whole problem. The Blue Ribbon group is aiming to help, at most, ten thousand children and five thousand families in five years, about one-quarter of the 86,000 people living in poverty today.

Option Three – The Great Technocrat Compromise

Another national voice on solving poverty has also appeared on the local horizon, something we might call the Great Technocrat Compromise. It’s included by way of reference on the Child Poverty Collaborative website. It won’t work either.

Within the Cincinnati Childhood Poverty Collaborative website there is page titled “Reading Room” at with a link to a joint publication of the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution called Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring The American Dream.

It’s hard to disagree with the project’s good intentions. It starts with the premise that there actually are some policies that both liberals and conservatives can agree on. Unfortunately, after excluding policies that are too far to the left or to the right, there is hardly any middle left. Here are the report’s major recommendations.

To strengthen families in ways that will prepare children for success in education and work:

1) Promote a new cultural norm surrounding parenthood and marriage.

2) Promote delayed, responsible childbearing.

3) Increase access to effective parenting education.

4) Help young, less-educated men and women prosper in work and family.

To improve the quantity and quality of work in ways that will better prepare young people—men as well as women—to assume the responsibilities of adult life and parenthood:

1) Improve skills to get well-paying jobs.

2) Make work pay more for the less educated.

3) Raise work levels among the hard-to-employ, including the poorly educated and those with criminal records.

4) Ensure that jobs are available.

To improve education in ways that will better help poor children avail themselves of opportunities for self-advancement:

1) Increase public investment in two underfunded stages of education: preschool and postsecondary.

2) Educate the whole child to promote social-emotional and character development as well as academic skills.

3) Modernize the organization and accountability of education.

4) Close resource gaps to reduce education gaps.

These are not bad ideas, but there are major problems with this list. One is that the mechanics of accomplishing these things are formidable if not impossible. Another is that these policies aren’t powerful enough to counter the social and political forces that are producing poverty today.

Consider the education issue. School success involves many factors beyond teacher effectiveness. Socioeconomic diversity is one of the best approaches to creating better learning outcomes at scale. That effect is one reason why school desegregation matters. Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to implement socioeconomic integration in our region. The trouble is politics more than anything else.

Thus, despite the evidence that some individual high poverty schools can be turned around, the best evidence for a strategy that is effective, scalable, and supported by reformers on the left and right is school socioeconomic integration via public school choice. But we still have much to learn about how best to integrate schools socioeconomically and how best to improve children’s academic and social-emotional learning via such integration. Thus, we also propose an expanded and rigorous program of research on the impact of various strategies for socioeconomic integration so that we can address lingering concerns.

Sadly, we can’t solve poverty by paying professors to do research. It takes political will, and doing the right thing. Socioeconomic integration is actually getting harder, not easier. The US is trending towards a self-perpetuating state of socioeconomic stratification and lowered economic mobility. AEI/Brookings acknowledges this.

Scholars on both the left and the right are also increasingly worried that children growing up today in lower-income families have fewer social supports and pathways into the middle class than in past generations. As Robert Putnam showed in his recent book Our Kids, children from well-to- do families today enjoy more material, emotional, and educational support than ever before, but children from low-income families often grow up in homes, schools, and communities that are in disarray. Charles Murray reached similar conclusions in Coming Apart.

* * *

Inequality in individual earnings and family income has risen a great deal in the past three decades, implying that those from low income families who fail to experience upward mobility will have relatively worse economic prospects in their lives, even if their absolute income levels rise. The rungs on the economic ladder are getting further apart.

This lack of social supports is not what causes poverty. Putnam’s book describes the effects of social stratification. Charles Murray’s book is more focused on the causes. Here’s his bottom line.

The culprits are the increasing market value of brains, wealth, the college sorting machine, and homogamy.

By the “increasing market value of brains” Murray means that a single kind of brain trait (cognitive-analytical skill) has come to define a person’s marketability and lifetime wealth prospects. People who don’t do well in calculus can no longer compete successfully for the nation’s elite-level highest-paying jobs. Meanwhile wealth produces a subgroup with unfettered access to the whole world’s resources and lifestyle enhancements – not just to a thin menu of social programs or occasional field trips. The “college sorting machine” is particularly insidious. It means that certain elite colleges increasingly serve people only of superior cognitive capacity, plus superior wealth, plus demonstrated accomplishment. Homogamy is the tendency of people at the elite socioeconomic level to socialize and intermarry with people like themselves, creating self-perpetuating elite cultural-economic worlds. Here is how Murray describes the process.

When one spouse is a college graduate in the top centiles of cognitive ability and the other is a high school graduate with modestly above-average cognitive ability, they are likely to have different preferences in books and movies, different ways of spending their free time, different friends, and differences in a dozen other aspects of life. Those differences carry with them a built-in measure of cultural dispersion within marriages. In 1960, two-thirds of families in managerial and professional occupations had that built-in educational heterogeneity. In 2010, when three-quarters of the most financially successful couples both had college degrees, the demand for the goods and services to supply the distinctive tastes and preferences of very bright and well-educated people had been concentrated. Another consequence of increased educational and cognitive homogamy is the increased tenacity of the elite in maintaining its status across generations.

Murray’s book Coming Apart is focused on so-called “White America,” but his distressing narrative of social stratification is echoed in Eugene Robinson’s book Disintegration, which addresses the socioeconomic stratification of African American society.

Murray also speaks about what he calls the country’s SuperZips – zip codes where only rich elite-level people live. The American elite now live separate from the rest of us. In Cincinnati, the poor are not to be found in Mount Lookout or Hyde Park. The rich don’t live in Winton Terrace.

My bottom line on the “self-improvement” and “talent cultivation” antipoverty strategies in the AEI/Brookings report is that they will not work for the mass of ordinary people in America. Their ideas are vaguely positive, or at least harmless, but underpowered. More Earned Income Tax Credit. More parenting classes. More preschool. More marriage. More stable families. More incentives for people on disability to go back to work. We might as well tack on “less racism.” It amounts to a compromised wish list. Well-intentioned, but not a plan.

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