BEYOND THE NUMBERS
House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan’s recent poverty report largely ignores evidence that anti-poverty programs can open doors of opportunity and yield lasting benefits for participants and society as a whole — even when this evidence comes from the same researchers whom the report cites for other purposes.
Here are a few examples:
SNAP (formerly food stamps). Disadvantaged children born in counties with access to food stamps grew up to be healthier than children in counties without it, according to a major study. They also were 18 percentage points more likely to finish high school, and girls from these counties rated higher on an index of adult “self-sufficiency” outcomes such as education, income, and staying off welfare. The Ryan report ignores this evidence, while citing a different study by two of the same researchers on the program’s short-term work disincentives in its early years.
Working family tax credits. Additional income from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit leads to significant increases in students’ test scores, a study found. The authors also noted that such test-score gains tend to lead to sizeable improvements in students’ earnings as adults. While the Ryan poverty report praises the EITC’s work incentives — and cites another study by one of the same researchers on the link between marriage and economic mobility — it ignores this and other research on the EITC’s long-term gains for children.
Head Start. The Ryan report says that Head Start is “failing to prepare children for school,” citing the lack of measurable differences between Head Start students and a control group during elementary school. But this conclusion ignores evidence of the program’s long-term benefits.
One study found that former Head Start attendees score higher than their siblings on a “composite index” of long-term outcomes in areas such as education, employment, and health status. Another study compared low-income counties that offered varying amounts of Head Start in 1965 (because some counties received more federal help launching the program) and found higher high school graduation and college enrollment and better health outcomes in the Head Start counties decades later for people of the right age to have participated in the program.
Importantly, such long-term gains don’t depend on sustained test-score gains, according to several studies of Head Start and similar interventions. For example, a review of three leading preschool pilot programs notes that although participants’ test-score gains diminished over time, these participants were much likelier to finish high school and enter college than other students. The Ryan report cites this study but only to show that the programs benefited girls more than boys.
To be sure, some Head Start programs need improving. But these studies suggest that recent efforts by the Obama Administration and Congress to strengthen quality and accountability are a better way to go than simply abandoning the Head Start model.
The Ryan report grimly concludes that federal programs are “failing to address” poverty. Poverty certainly remains too high. But the report seems determined not to recognize the long-term successes of existing programs even when the evidence is in plain sight.