Jeb Bush, the former Republican governor of Florida who is expected to run for president, has weighed in on the upheaval in Baltimore and the economic condition of American cities generally. “We have spent trillions of dollars in the War on Poverty, and poverty not only persists, it is as intractable as ever,” he writes. “This represents a broken promise. And it feeds the anger of Baltimore.”
Bush is right that poverty hasn’t been eradicated and that it is particularly pronounced in Baltimore, a city where the rate is 24 percent. But the money spent on the programs that were part of the War on Poverty have significantly lowered the poverty rate, and it would be much worse without them. The poverty rate has dropped from 19 percent in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson first declared his effort to fight poverty, to 14.5 percent today.
But that doesn’t capture the impact of War on Poverty programs such as food stamps, housing and heating assistance, and nutrition programs, as well as things like tax credits. Using that measure, poverty has fallen from an estimated 26 percent in 1964 to 16 percent today. Meanwhile, food stamps kept 4.6 million people out of poverty last year and the poverty rate would be 17.1 percent without them, while it would be 16.5 percent without housing subsidies, which kept 3.1 million people above the poverty line. These programs — which Republicans keep trying to cut — do in fact alleviate poverty.
Still, more can clearly be done to help the country’s poor, both in cities like Baltimore and elsewhere. Bush’s prescription for reducing the rate further, however, begins with a call for poor people to get married. “If our government leaders want to attack poverty, they should first acknowledge that an effective anti-poverty program is a strong family, led by two parents,” he writes. “The evidence on this is incontrovertible.”
Certainly the children of married couples on the whole experience a lower poverty rate than those of cohabiting or single parents. But more than 9.3 million married people still live in poverty. Meanwhile, researchers have found that it’s not marriage per se that helps the children of married couples or even parenting necessarily, but rather differences in income, given that married couples tend to be better off. Lower incomes for unmarried parents explains about a third of the differences for their outcomes as compared to those of married parents. And single parents’ lower incomes are the result of deliberate policy choices.
Meanwhile, pushing low-income people to wed isn’t likely to do much. More than two-thirds of single mothers who marry end up divorced later on, which actually leaves them worse off financially than just staying single. Even if it did help, the government has a terrible track record of successfully prodding them into it. It has spent millions on marriage promotion programs that have had no impact on whether the couples get married or even stay together and no impact on the divorce rate, while one even made couples less likely to remain together.
Bush’s next solution is to “take aim at our deeply failed education system.” He notes that “Baltimore spends more than $15,000 per student each school year,” yet has some of the worst outcomes, and claims, “The schools in our cities are not underfunded.” Baltimore schools do struggle, as less than a third of eighth graders test advanced or proficient in math and just over half test at that level in reading, while less than two-thirds of high school seniors met graduation requirements, compared to nearly 90 percent statewide.
But while the spending figure Bush cites may sound like a large amount, the city actually ranks 20th among the country’s 500 largest school districts in terms of spending and 160th among school districts with at least 5,000 students. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s school funding gets shared with charters; traditional public schools will get just $5,336 per student next year. Average amounts also obscure the fact that school districts usually spend more on wealthy students and white students than on poor and black ones. On the other hand, there is evidence that spending more money on education does improve outcomes.
His final recommendation is “Reducing regulations, removing expensive licensing requirements for startups and cutting occupational fees.” But it’s hard to see how getting rid of some red tape will fix the economic woes of a city like Baltimore, which has been hemorrhaging jobs along with its population — and therefore, its tax base — for decades. Its black residents in particular still struggle with the legacy of racist housing policies dating back to the early 20th century that still haven’t been eradicated and took another toll in the subprime lending crisis.