As conservatives have reported often, the LBJ-era “War on Poverty” has resulted in lackluster outcomes. Well-meaning policymakers building the “War on Poverty” created an unprecedented package of legislation, funding poverty programs, and ineffectual employment-related education and training. Fast-forward some $20 trillion in spending later, these endeavors produced little change, and efforts to provide education and job-training proved inconsequential, resulting in a mere 2.8 percent decrease in the poverty rate since 1965.
Decades after the War on Poverty began, many of its programs have failed, and the most durable solution to help end poverty, work itself, the centerpiece of landmark welfare reform in 1996 that lifted millions of families out of poverty. Yet under the Obama administration, work requirements for welfare benefits were lax, despite the staggering anti-poverty achievements achieved through a thriving capitalist system.
In his new book, Poor No More, author Peter Cove, who has spent half a century fighting poverty, offers a plan to restructure poverty programs, prioritizing jobs above all else. Cove reports how capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other system in the world.
Yet traditionally, job placement programs stemmed from non-profit organizations or government agencies. However, America Works, the first for-profit job placement venture founded by Cove, has the highest employee retention rate in the greater New York City area, even above these traditional agencies. When the federal government embraced the work-first ideal, inspired by the success of America Works, welfare rolls plummeted from 12.6 million to 4.7 million nationally within one decade.
Poor No More looks to shift the national paradigm about work by critically reporting on the evolution of America’s War on Poverty and urges policymakers to eliminate training and education programs that waste time and money, and to adopt a work-first model.
In the book, Cove reports how his team first delved into research-driven programs looking at welfare-to-work efforts in the early 1990s in Massachusetts. They found that investing into jobs would reduce welfare expenditures by five times—findings that impressed the State Senate’s then-Chair of Ways and Means, enough to implement their recommendations statewide. That success was further replicated in prisoner-to-work programs in Oakland, Calif., and New York City.
Cove reports on a recent, randomized study by the Manhattan Institute that found that the average cost of America Works programming would be $5,000 for nonviolent offenders–programs focused on tangible, realized work and job placement rather than self-directed job searches–would yield an average savings of approximately $231,000 for each nonviolent offender. That of course in addition to the intangible benefits to societies and families of both rehabilitating former prisoners and those who might have been victimized if the prisoner had relapsed.
“I have tried to fight for the adoption of many of our philosophies, particularly work-first and pay for performance, at the national and local levels,” Cove rights in Poor No More. “Where we do training, it is very targeted to what the industry or company managers tell us the would like to see. While we have had limited success, there is continuing opposition from the government and the welfare-industrial complex. In fact, under the Obama administration education and training has taken once again preeminence in welfare reduction despite its proven, disappointing results in the past.”
Cove writes that the focus on education and training—rather than concrete, direct connection to the marketplace—reinforced the failures of public education that focused on skills or knowledge that could not be marketable.
“It was clear that having been failed by these programs for so long, putting clients back in a classroom tended to reinforce their belief that they were never going to get a job,” Cove rights in his critique of the status-quo approach to welfare reform. “Clients were unable to visualize any benefits that would accrue from more time spent sitting and listening to people who they had no reason to trust. But the poverty program elite, satisfied to plan from above and never visit any actual programs, had no idea that their experiences did not translate … The benefits of quick reentry into the labor force were immediate. People gained confidence from witnessing that employers wanted them. They had been paid so long not to work that they hardly believed anyone would want them.”
Poor No More reinforces a central message of Bob Woodson, an Opportunity Lives partner with deep experience in addressing and preventing poverty. Woodson is critical of the trillions of dollars in taxpayer money flowing to so-called “poverty experts” rather than successfully empowering low-income people to become the agents of their own uplift.
“In our field, we talk a lot about ‘best practices’ when trying to improve our programs’ successes. I will say unequivocally that there is only one best practice–and that is paying for results,” Cove writes. “I challenge other program operators to prove me wrong. This is competition and capitalism at its best. The government sets the terms of who shall be served and how much it is worth, and the marketplace develops the tools to deliver … People drawn to government tend to be mistrustful of the private for-profit sectors. Yet it is this economic principle that has powered our preeminence in the world.”
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others. A founding POLITICO reporter, Carrie contributed on political economy at Forbes and wrote editorials for The Washington Times. After earning a master’s in public policy from Harvard University, she managed credit risk at Goldman Sachs and researched for American Enterprise Institute scholar Edward Conard. She earned a B.A. in communications at Brigham Young University and completed a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin.