Senior person hands begging for food or help

We’ve reached a dead end in the debate over poverty here in the United States. Liberals and Democrats say that all we need is to throw more money at the program, as if the trillions we’ve spent over the past 50 years were not enough. Conservatives and Republicans, while great at dissecting the failure of Great Society anti-poverty programs, don’t have much to offer in their place. No one, not even mean, skin-flinted conservatives like me, want to slash benefits willy nilly. No one wants a country in which poor children starve or poor sick people die from a sudden retraction of the safety net.

Is there a third way? Perhaps. From the small but magnificent country of New Zealand (run by the conservative National Party) comes a new idea: using Big Data to target welfare dollars where they are most needed. Allegheny County, Pa., (which includes Pittsburgh) is hiring a Kiwi pioneer in the field to apply the same approach to the American welfare system. Maybe Virginia should consider doing the same.

Writes Josh Eidelson with Bloomberg:

In 2010, when [New Zealand] Minister of Finance Bill English first convened a policy group to review welfare spending, government statistics showed half the 4,300 teenage single mothers receiving benefits in that country were likely to remain in the welfare system for 20 years, at a total cost of about $264,000 each. The government responded with $23 million to assign individual case workers to help teenage mothers finish school and find work. Now, after four years, the number of teenage single parents on benefits has dropped to 2,600.

Using data from welfare, education, employment, and housing agencies and the courts, the government identified the most expensive welfare beneficiaries—kids who have at least one close adult relative who’s previously been reported to child safety authorities, been to prison, and spent substantial time on welfare. “There are million-dollar kids in those families,” English says. “By the time they are 10, their likelihood of incarceration is 70 percent. You’ve got to do something about that.”

What works in a small, homogeneous country like New Zealand may not translate well to a large, multicultural country like the United States with a culture of inter-generational poverty and dysfunctional governance institutions. But, then, it’s just possible that the Kiwi model will work here. Given our impotence in combating poverty in the U.S., we don’t have anything to lose. If we frame the initiative as fiscally conservative (no one is asking to spend more money or raise taxes) and as pragmatically effective (we succeed at actually lifting at-risk people out of poverty), using Big Data to combat poverty would at least be a political winner.


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  1. larryg Avatar

    Well New Zealand has universal health care to start with and it’s schools are academically heads and shoulders above the US, nationalized curricula (common core-like) , 7th in the world in science and 13th in math and they are State operated and College is heavily subsidized

    this is what lifts people out of poverty – access to a good education and health care for mom, dad and the kids.

    we insist on being willfully ignorant of the things that DO WORK at every other OECD country – on the planet and yet we pretend that we need to have “studies” to figure out what we are doing wrong.

    it’s not “big data”… l it’s “BIG DUMB”.. we insist on being stupid about education and health care – and it’s link to poverty.

  2. BDVienna Avatar

    Actually, that’s not what “liberals and Democrats” are seeking these days. They’re looking at innovative programs such as the one that all but ended chronic homelessness in Utah, of all places. And there are plenty of “liberals and Democrats” along with “conservatives and libertarians who actually follow ideals and not a party line” who are entertaining the prospect of a universal basic income.

    In other words — all of these people are looking for a more efficient safety net. Which is why what you’re suggesting isn’t a bad idea — it’s just one of many.

  3. larryg Avatar

    exactly. it’s like the MedicAid issue – is it cheaper to subsidize people getting primary care – or after-the-fact charity care for advanced diseases not detected at the primary care stage.

    It’s about blaming lazy parents and kids for not getting sufficient education – then growing up with a lifetime of entitlements and incarceration.

    we can’t spend a few thousand dollars extra to provide more resources to economically disadvantage kids – but we can pay for 20-30 years of entitlements…

    I’m totally opposed to throwing money at the problem – and especially good money after bad but the idea that money is not needed and other things should be done – is just totally missing the train.

    It takes money – and it takes performance standards and it take holding institutions and people accountable for achieving the performance standards.

    the “magic” of vouchers and charter/choice schools without measuring results is no better than bad public schools.

    there’s an interesting study just out:

    “The Best and Worst Places to Grow Up: How Your Area Compares”

    ” How a zip code affects odds of escaping poverty”

    these are studies that tell it like it is … to guide us in choices to deal with – instead of presuming from the get go -that it’s not really about zip codes.

    It’s like we purposely ignore some of the most important data when we decide what theories and approaches we want to pursue.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry, I remain confused about all these entitlements people are getting. Women with minor children get taxpayer-funded benefits (TANF). SSI goes to “aged, blind, and disabled people, who have little or no income,” a quote from the Social Security Administration. Social Security Disability requires a person to have worked in a job covered by SS and be disabled. Many poor people get food stamps. There is some general assistance welfare, but it’s not much.

      Able bodied adults just don’t get a lot of tax dollars. If you are not elderly, a minor child or disabled, you don’t get much. Help me understand what you mean by entitlements.

      1. larryg Avatar

        TMT – you don’t think abled-bodied adults without kids get entitlements?

        is that your point?

        1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

          Darn little beyond food stamps and sometimes, one-shot assistance. At least that’s what Fairfax County officials have told me.

  4. larryg Avatar

    ” Liberals and Democrats say that all we need is to throw more money at the program, as if the trillions we’ve spent over the past 50 years were not enough. ”

    I think that’s a far right point of view – not a moderate and it takes a all or nothing approach to basically condemn everything done without every suggesting what would have been better other than the truly ignorant, cut taxes and cut regulation – trickle down baloney.

    we have not solved the problem – in large part because it don’t matter how much you provide in entitlements – if the recipient has an insufficient education – poverty is the usual outcome and a lifetime of entitlement won’t fix it – yes that’s a plain fact but again – this has been a long dance – since Reagan and if it was not working – where were the GOP mid-course corrections other than cut entitlements, cut taxes and cut regulation like it was some sort of Alice in Wonderland story that would come true if repeated often enough.

    “WE” – the left – and the right – have presided over an education system that fails the nation as a whole putting us in 25th place in the world but worse that that – an absolute meltdown of a failure for the economically disadvantaged living in the “wrong” zip codes – neighborhood schools that are continuing disasters and other than the blame union bad teachers and lazy gene-crippled parents – little else other than magic vouchers… of which they don’t want to be measured apples-to-apples with public schools.

    re: ” skin-flinted conservatives like me, want to slash benefits willy nilly. No one wants a country in which poor children starve or poor sick people die from a sudden retraction of the safety net.”

    you make money the total enemy of good.. as if we can fix this problem – without money because we could not fix it with money.

    Nice try but that’s grade A baloney.

    you cannot buy good non-union teachers with pennies on the dollar and you can’t make excuses that you deserve the tax dollars but don’t want accountability.

    If non-public schools are such a slam dunk -then let Koch and Heritage and Alec putting together some real pilot programs to prove it – instead of putting their money into agenda-driven bogus “studies”.

    here’s the narrative I hear:

    1. – lazy and gene-crippled parents just don’t help their kids succeed – never-mind that the parents themselves have a 3rd grade education … that’s their fault also..

    2. – Pre-K, Head-start, Title 1 are “unproven” and likely to not accomplish their intended goals do let’s defund them.. and give the money to vouchers.

    3. -standards like NCLB and common core – are evil attempts at centralized govt control of schools and we don’t need to be measuring academic performance in the first place – it stresses the kids out and makes them lose their self-esteem.

    4.- teacher unions protect bad teachers that fail the kids – hmm.. the best schools in the US are in the Northeast – totally unionized and the worst schools in the US in red right-to-work states..

    I’m all for competition. I’d like to see genuine challenges to public schools – especially the ones in lower income zip codes that seem to fail most of the kids.

    but it’s need to be apple-to-apple, level playing field.

    no cherry-picking the students – accept the same community demographics that the community public school is held responsible for educating.

    use a standard performance criteria that allows us to do legitimate apples-to-apples comparisons – and if the non-public schools win – then I’m totally fine with them getting the nod.

    Unfortunately our conservative friends walk up to this point – of requiring the same accountability – and they bail out …

    and they circle back to the blame dialogue…

    Emulating selective , cherry-picked parts of New Zealand’s system and a refusal to compare results between the new methods with the old methods – really gets us nowhere. It’s like a never-ending shouting match.

    the premise is that anything is better than what we have now – and we don’t need to prove it except with agenda-driven studies from think-tanks that are predisposed against public schools .

    where are the honest studies that deal with the realities and don’t cook the books?

    this is not a way to improve the schools. It’s basically an ideological tactic to simply “blame liberals” and it’s just a loser of a position.

    Conservatives have had 50 years to do something real – 50 states a good number red, conservative Congresses including the NCLB Bush Congress and what exactly have they done to prove their premises – other than NCLB which most Conservatives utterly reject and what the Dept of Education shut down.

    where is the right on alternatives? it’s the same old, same old.. obstruction, obfuscation and “ideas” and theories but no real beef.

  5. The only government agencies systematically using advanced technologies are within the intelligence community. And that’s all I’ll have to say about that.

    The technology gap between private enterprise and government agencies has been widening since 2000 and has really grown from 2010 to 2015.

    Interestingly, it’s not government in general but America’s unique style of change resistant, overly bureaucratic government that hinders progress. A few years ago I was running a next generation database company. We were based in America with 80% of our employees in America (we had sales offices in Tokyo and London). We sold our database to governments in England, Denmark and Japan. However, we couldn’t even get an audience with any branch of US government. We were told over and over again that we needed to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and a couple of years to get to the point where our company would be acceptable to bid on a small US government contract. We had enough private demand as well as enough demand from foreign governments that we never wasted our time and money chasing the US government (at any level).

    Big data would be a big gain for government. The possibility of using big data to create curricula and teaching approaches customized to the needs of individual students holds extraordinary promise. I just wonder whether the present government processes and personnel have any chance of achieving the benefits from the use of big data anytime in the near to mid term future.

  6. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    I just finished a book discussion group on Putnam’s latest “Our Kids”….this group was from across the ideological spectrum…..we all reached the independent conclusion that anyone who argues against more gov’t funding for social programs for youth simply is ignorant of the 21st century. This group included a fairly staunch conservative from Albemarle, but even she was persuaded by the book.

    The evidence is overwhelming that the children of the elite are leaving every other kid in the dust. The only hope for the supermajority of kids is to fund programs/opportunities that at least resemble the elites.

    If you read the book with an open mind, it’s hard to come away with any other conclusion. One thing that struck me was that a professor at U.Va.’s McIntire School said that you can see this at all of the elite schools in the U.S….the students are completely uniform nowadays. That wasn’t the case when he started 20 years ago. But now, almost all the students are from 2 parent households where mom and dad hold at least bachelor’s degrees and make good money. But his more interesting point is that he recently read a study about the alleged “IT success stories”…you know…the kids who “didn’t go to college” or “dropped out after a semester”….and have made millions. Problem with pointing to that as “evidence” against class rigidity? The study showed that those kids were almost uniformly from the same elite households that produce the kids that populate elite universities.

    Perhaps the use of big data could be helpful in determining the effectiveness of dollars, but I think it’s inescapable that unless we make greater investments in youth programs….we’re headed to a fairly rigid class system in the U.S. unless some major investments are made into our youth…now.

    It might be more useful for big data to track what programs/activities of the elite kids seem to make the most impact in their development.

  7. larryg Avatar

    here’s a question for folks. How many people do you know that have a college education – but their parents do not?

    1. Cville Resident Avatar
      Cville Resident

      Such a relevant question that many won’t answer because they don’t want to admit the truth.

      Outside of community college, I don’t know a single kid pursuing a bachelor’s degree whose parents don’t also have a bachelor’s.

      Whereas 30 years ago, there were plenty of kids in college whose parents never attended college.

      I guess you could call me a hybrid on this issue. I do think that family formation is critical in America (how many kids are in college who aren’t the product of a 2 parent family). But where I disagree with conservatives is why family formation doesn’t look like it did 50 years ago. I definitely think Krugman’s right…middle class values are a product of middle class jobs/income. And as manufacturing and other middle class jobs have left, we’ve seen the traditional 2 parent family dissolve.

      One thing that a social worker friend told me that I’ve always took to heart: the key to so many of societal ills is instability. That’s what Scandanavia does right. If people’s lives are able to have a somewhat normal existence after a job loss, you can be sure that the children will have much better outcomes. American society is set up to make sure that the working/lower class has a tough go….a job loss is simply devastating, especially to 2 nonmarried folks. And that leads to instability, which in turn leads to a lot of poor social outcomes.

      That’s why Rick Santorum had a point in 2012: sure, 2 people with at least a high school degree who are married tend to have few kids in poverty. But Santorum just leaves it at “marriage” as some sort of talisman to poverty. My guess is that most of those 2 parent families have 2 incomes and a commitment to each other. Thus, one job loss doesn’t tend to trigger social/economic dysfunction that is associated with instability. Rather, that combined income stream with a commitment to keeping it combined (marriage) does lead to much greater social stability and better outcomes for children.

      The onion has many layers…..unfortunately we have a lot of politicians who simply think the skin is the only layer.

    2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Most of my generation (Baby Boomers) were the first generation to go to college. There were exceptions among my friends and classmates, but they were overwhelmed by the number of friends and classmates whose parents had graduated from high school — or less. And a large number of their grandparents had 8th grade educations or maybe one or two years of high school. Why did this generation beat the odds, but now no one else can?

      Why do many people move to this country without substantial educations and their children go to college and beyond?

      How much does the huge drug and alcohol culture have to do with it?

      1. Cville Resident Avatar
        Cville Resident

        Good questions. One thing about the Boomers…..a lot of them grew up in California and New York…..I believe California universities were actually free to in-state residents when boomers were coming along through college. I believe SUNY and CUNY were heavily subsidized almost to the point of being free for in-state residents when the boomers were of college age. I’m fairly certain Washington state also subsidized its state schools to the point that in-state students paid a nominal tuition when the Boomers were of college age. That certainly eased the way for a lot of kids in that generation to go to college.

        I think substance abuse is (largely) a symptom rather than a cause of the decline of the working class in America. But…once addicted…it probably does create a substantial, if not insurmountable, obstacle to ever getting out of the poverty trap.

        I also think the segmentation of “public” schools plays a role. High school kids aren’t dumb. It’s hard to see the cross-county “public” school with so much wealth, prestige, accolades, etc. and not have that make a pretty big impact on one’s self-conception if you are a student at a “crappy” school. There wasn’t a “golden age”, but public school systems used to not accept the enormous disparities within a single system that we see across the country today. I imagine that plays a much bigger role than has been documented in the decline of the working class.

        Obviously technology and automation and international trade have also been large factors in the decline of the working class.

  8. larryg Avatar

    a sound-bite layer at that. The irony here is that NCLB was supposed to ensure those in less advantageous circumstances were provided with some equivalent level of educational opportunity – but it has not worked out that way – and now we blame the teachers, blame the “genes” and want to kill NCLB because of “testing”.

    so many things these days are – ” it must work near perfect or it’s a failure and we chuck it and start over – with stuff that has no proven success – and, oh yes.. we don’t want it measured either because then we’d be back to NCLB accountability and that’s bad.

    we are – royally screwed up these days..

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