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Invitation to a Dialogue: Fighting Poverty

News Source: The New York Times

To the Editor:

Nicholas D. Kristof is clearly right: Too many young children from poor families face diminished opportunities by the time they’re just 2 years old, and we should do more to help them overcome the formidable obstacles before them (“For Obama’s New Term, Start Here,” column, Jan. 24). But his portrayal of today’s safety net deserves a broader look.

Noting that the “official” poverty rate is no lower today than in the late 1960s, Mr. Kristof said our anti-poverty programs largely address symptoms of poverty without reducing poverty itself.

But the official poverty measure considers only cash income in determining whether a family is poor. It counts cash welfare payments, which have fallen dramatically since the late 1960s, but not benefits like food stamps and the earned-income tax credit, which provide much more assistance now than then.

The government’s more comprehensive poverty measure that counts these other benefits shows that safety-net programs now cut the number of poor people nearly in half — by more than 40 million — compared with where the nation would be without these programs.

Moreover, numerous studies show that key safety-net programs do more than reduce poverty. Children who had access to food stamps in early childhood were healthier as adults. Medicaid coverage is associated with better health, lower mortality and less household debt. The earned-income tax credit substantially increases work among poor single parents and leads to improvement in children’s school performance.

Still, as Mr. Kristof argues, for too many poor families, existing programs aren’t sufficient. Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet. So we should move aggressively to identify, test and evaluate a variety of new approaches and to institute and spread effective initiatives, to help more poor children advance and poor adults surmount barriers to success in the labor market. But as we do so, we shouldn’t lose sight of the safety net’s considerable accomplishments or the progress that has been made.

ROBERT GREENSTEIN
Washington, Feb. 4, 2013

The writer is president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Editors’ Note: We invite readers to respond by Thursday for the Sunday Dialogue. We plan to publish responses and Mr. Greenstein’s rejoinder in the Sunday Review. E-mail: letters@nytimes.com

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