Creating Sustainable Mobility from Poverty

June 13 @ 10:08 pm
By Communications Office

The fifth annual New Frontiers in Poverty Research conference featured a keynote by Wes Moore, innovative policy proposals such as baby bonds, and a roadmap to reducing child poverty.

On Thursday, May 23, the School of Social Work co-hosted the New Frontiers in Poverty Research Conference. The annual forum, now in its fifth year, showcases the latest research taking place at the School of Social Work’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy, with funding from leading poverty foundations and organizations.

READ: New Frontiers in Poverty Research Conference 2019 Agenda

This year’s keynote speaker, Wes Moore, spoke passionately about the need not only to reduce poverty but also to find ways to sustain its alleviation. Moore is Chief Executive Officer of Robin Hood, New York City’s largest poverty-fighting organization and a collaborator with the Poverty Center in putting together one of the most richly detailed studies of poverty ever undertaken in the United States.

Pointing out that structural inequities make it incredibly rare for the poor to climb into higher economic strata in this country, Moore said: “We’re not in the situation that we’re in right now because philanthropy hasn’t done its job. We’re not in the situation that we’re in right now because social service organizations and universities and social workers haven’t done theirs. We’re in the situation we’re in right now because we are still living in a condition of economic inequality where policies are helping to make it so.”

He added: “How then can we use our voice and our advocacy to address the policies that are still putting people, and keeping people, in poverty?”

Moore told the Columbia audience that his fervor for economic justice and sustainable mobility was ignited the moment that he came to realize how easily his life could have taken a different path. He describes that moment in his bestselling book, The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, which juxtaposes his own life story with that of another man with the same name, who grew up around the same time he did, also in Baltimore, and in a similarly challenging socioeconomic situation. Yet the Wes Moore addressing us went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, Army combat veteran, investment banker, and eventually the CEO of Robin Hood, while the other Wes Moore is now serving a life sentence for a murder committed during a botched robbery.

WATCH: Poverty Conference Keynote

A decade ago, Moore’s organization contacted Columbia School of Social Work professors Irwin Garfinkel and Jane Waldfogel about designing a Poverty Tracker tool to study disadvantage in New York City. Launched in 2012, the Poverty Tracker is now a flagship project of the Center on Poverty and Social Policy, which is co-directed by Irwin Garfinkel and senior research scientist Christopher Wimer, with additional support provided by the Columbia Population Research Center.

Whereas most poverty surveys monitor annual levels of poverty, the Tracker follows 4,000 New York City households each quarter over many years to provide a far more thorough and nuanced view of poverty’s effects on people’s lives and overall well-being, as well as in-depth data on other aspects of disadvantage including hardship and wellbeing.

According to Moore, the Tracker has been showing just how “sticky” poverty is—a fact that the first group of panelists went on to illustrate in their discussion of “Harnessing the Robin Hood Poverty Tracker to Understand New Dimensions of Poverty in New York City.”

Led by Christopher Wimer, panelists reported that 42 percent of New Yorkers have been in poverty at some point over the past three years, according to the latest Poverty Tracker data. Of those who escape poverty, 34 percent end up back in poverty within a year. Many of those who are able to stay above the poverty line tend to hover barely above it, making their progress tenuous.

WATCH: Poverty Conference Panel 1

The second panel of the day, “New Ideas to Combat Poverty in the United States,” moved beyond New York City to explore policy ideas that have the potential to make substantial impacts on ameliorating poverty at the national level. This group of panelists analyzed the potential impacts of a wide range of policy proposals, including reforms and increases of existing income supports that are currently being promoted by some of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, such as child tax credits, renter’s credits, the earned income tax credit, and child care subsidies.

READ: Fighting Poverty with Jobs, a joint policy report from the Columbia Center on Poverty and Social Policy and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality

Of particular interest to the panel was the idea of baby bonds—savings accounts that would be established by the government for every newborn in America, containing a set amount of money determined by family income (the poorest receive the most money, while the wealthiest receive the least). Panelists agreed that this policy holds substantial promise in reducing the racial wealth gap.

WATCH: Poverty Conference Panel 2

The concluding panel, moderated by New York Times journalist Jason DeParle, who frequently reports on poverty issues, focused on “Cutting Child Poverty in Half: Expert Recommendations and Implementation in the ‘Real World.’” Panelists discussed a recent study on the subject conducted by the National Academies, to which Garfinkel contributed.

VISIT: AAS Resources for A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty

Garfinkel spoke first and explained that the study’s most aggressive proposals would cut child poverty in half over ten years at a cost around 100 billion per year, providing a substantial return on investment when one considers that child poverty is estimated to cost the U.S. economy roughly $1 trillion each year.

WATCH: Poverty Conference Panel 3

The conference was hosted in conjunction with several other Columbia institutions including the Just Societies Initiative, the Columbia Population Research Center, and the School for International and Public Affairs’ Urban and Social Policy Concentration.


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