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  • A 10-year plan to cut child poverty in half could have been one thing the committee was asked to do, but it should not have been its primary goal. Tweet This
  • When the report dropped in February, conservatives were especially irked by its sidelining of work requirements. Tweet This

Earlier this year, pursuant to a mandate from Congress, the National Academies (NAS) released a massive report on strategies for reducing child poverty. At the time, I criticized how Congress’s stated request—a plan to cut child poverty by half in just 10 years, using policies with expert consensus behind them—effectively forced the panel to propose an enormous expansion of the welfare state. (More recently, Lonnie M. Berger and Marcia J. Carlson provided a more positive review.)

Poverty is defined as having an income below a certain threshold, so when all else fails, to reduce poverty you can always just give people money—assuming you’re just drafting a proposal and not actually trying to pass anything through Congress. And that’s basically what the panel concluded: To eliminate most child poverty in a decade using policies we know will work, you have to beef up transfer payments to families with children, along with enacting some work-focused measures such as an expanded earned-income tax credit, at the cost of upwards of $90 billion per year.

recent event at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, with a presentation by NAS panel member Robert Moffitt and a wide-ranging discussion afterwards, provides additional insight into how the panel operated and how its narrow focus weakened its ability to guide the practical policy discussion. And it brings to mind ways in which future National Academies panels might be given more helpful mission statements.

Moffitt’s comments were mostly dedicated to summarizing the report, and thus contained few surprises. But several times he commented on the panel’s inability to discuss important policies owing to the limits imposed by Congress.

“Ten years, basically, is tomorrow,” Moffitt said. “There’s many things you can simply not do that fast, so that greatly limited the kinds of things we could do.” He added that “early childhood education . . . human-capital policies, long-run investments in training, are not going to happen that fast. So, we simply did not look at them. They were ruled out of our purview.” Even the report that was released went a bit outside of Congress’s directions by including two policy packages that did not reduce child poverty by half but were far cheaper. The “work-oriented” package, for instance, reduces child poverty by a fifth for just $9 billion per year.

When the report dropped in February, conservatives were especially irked by its sidelining of work requirements, which those on the right tend to see as key to the success of welfare reform in 1996. Many conservatives would like to expand work requirements in food stamps, and some states are experimenting with such requirements in Medicaid. But since there isn’t much research on how those reforms work when applied to programs besides cash welfare, and much of the research on the original reform is dated, the panel couldn’t consider these options, either. “I mean, how would we calculate the impact of that?” Moffitt asked.

A recent event at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, with a presentation by NAS panel member Robert Moffitt and a wide-ranging discussion afterwards, provides additional insight into how the panel operated and how its narrow focus weakened its ability to guide the practical policy discussion.

The subsequent discussion underlined the fact that, rather than uniting poverty experts around a core set of research findings and possible policy solutions, the report often generated disagreement. Despite praising much about the report, AEI’s Matt Weidenger said he was “disappointed in the report’s not recognizing the benefits of work requirements” and noted that it was “federal-centric,” neglecting the role that state and local governments, not to mention private organizations like charities, might have.

Ron Haskins, a Brookings Institution fellow, an architect of the 1996 reform, and a member of the NAS panel, added: 

There were 15 members of the committee. We didn’t wear big signs that said Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, but there were only two members of the committee that could be easily recognized as right of center. So the committee was really composed of people who didn’t have a tremendous amount of trouble spending $100 billion.

Haskins also highlighted the panel’s “work-focused” proposal, which reduces child poverty “only” 20% and thus doesn’t meet the committee’s goal—noting, much as I did in my earlier piece, that it delivers far more bang for each buck than the alternatives.

AEI’s Bruce Meyer, participating as an audience member, also pointed out that the bigger packages’ transfers are expansions of existing programs, and that further spending could have diminishing returns in terms of improving child outcomes. “You’re emphasizing here just giving people more money, and we’re pretty good at that," he said, continuing:

But I’m not sure that that emphasizes work and responsibility enough in a way that’s going to discourage single motherhood, discourage dropping out, discourage crime. It doesn’t really send a message of ‘You are in this too, you have to change your life,’ and I worry it might not have the intended effects.

If Congress’s goal was simply to commission a report supporting large-scale transfers, mission accomplished. But this obviously didn’t cut through the partisan lines that separate policymakers in D.C., where even a modest expansion of the child tax credit proved controversial a couple of years back. How might it have been different?

Simply put, the mandate was far too narrow. A 10-year plan to cut child poverty in half could have been one thing the committee was asked to do, but it should not have been its primary goal. At minimum, the panel should have also been asked to create (a) a longer-term plan, illustrating policies that pay off down the line; and (b) a research agenda to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. Some of this information is in the report, including a full chapter on policies the committee was not able to consider and why. But it was deemphasized.

Imagine if, in addition to its 10-year plans, the committee had prominently recommended extensive experiments to determine how work requirements function in the context of programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. Imagine if it included a 50-year plan with gentler increases to federal spending and more focus on developing opportunity and human capital. I have to imagine the report’s reception on the right would have been far less cold, and its influence over the debate even greater.

Robert VerBruggen is an Institute for Family Studies research fellow and a deputy managing editor of National Review.