A Fist Fight at the New York Times?

05/07/2015 04:25 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

Jonathon Chait seems to be trying to get a fist fight going at the New York Times. He claims in New York Magazine that a recent column by Paul Krugman was actually an attack on David Brooks. Brooks claimed that we have spent huge sums on anti-poverty efforts with no success and that the problem of poverty is due to poor people lacking middle class values.

I side with Krugman on the question of whether government expenditures make a difference on poverty. But I think Krugman and other critics of Brooks are unfairly misreading Brooks' claim. Living in poverty stresses families and undermines the development of nurturing social relationships and the self-regulatory skills, which are foundational for successful development. We need to change public policies to significantly increase the well-being of people who are currently living in poverty, but we also need to provide evidence-based family and school interventions to reduce interpersonal conflict and ensure young people's successful development.

Brooks' claim that we have invested huge sums of money in anti-poverty efforts and they have not reduced poverty is misleading. The investments he alludes to are things like Medicare and Medicaid, the EITC, and TANF. These have reduced poverty. For example, since Medicare was instituted in 1966 the proportion of poor people over 65 has dropped from 30% to 8.9%. But we have not reduced the rate of child poverty. It has risen from about 15% in 1975 to 22% in 2014.

Brooks also ignores the fact that the American economy has devastated huge swaths of formerly middle class people thanks to our shipping jobs overseas, not indexing the minimum wage, and allowing millions of Americans to live without health insurance during an era when health care costs soared. Read Robert Putnam's new book, Our Kids and you will find it hard to conclude that public policy has done all it can to alleviate poverty.

Simply increasing the funds of poor families does have measurable benefits. For example, Jane Costello and her colleague at Duke University, found that the rates of mental disorders among Native American children dropped significantly when their tribe opened a casino and increased the income of many poor families.

In sum, government funds have alleviated some poverty and are vital to the wellbeing of people living in poverty. If they have not reduced chronic poverty it is in part because public policy has, on the whole, made it impossible for many families to climb out of poverty. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson documented how, under the thrall of free market ideology, policy as failed to (a) increase the minimum wage and index it to inflation, (b) expand the Earned Income Tax Credit or allow its use to be encouraged (c) regulate company-provided pension plans, or (d) regulate the financial industry, including pay day loans and financial instruments, which fueled the housing bubble.

At the same time, Brooks makes an important point, which has been too quickly characterized as accusing poor people of lacking the proper values--of "blaming the victim." Brooks claims that "...the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition."

I don't think these are the only barriers, but the evidence is clear that the quality of relationships in families, schools, and neighborhoods has an enormous effect on young people's development. When families are stressed by poverty they are more likely to have high levels of conflict. Conflict is a stressor for children that can produce life-long physiological changes and undermine children's ability to learn to regulate their emotions or resist acting impulsively.

The evidence is so clear, that if child poverty were considered to be a pathogen like contaminated water, our public health system would be empowered to take every step necessary to eliminate it.

What both Brooks and Krugman seem to be unaware of is the wealth of evidence on the value of family and school prevention programs that significantly improve the quality of interactions such that parents and teachers are less punitive and far more reinforcing of the social skills and prosocial behavior young people need to succeed. In reviewing evidence on the impact of preventive interventions, an Institute of Medicine panel I was on concluded that, in principle, we have the knowledge to "begin to create a society in which young people arrive at adulthood with the skills, interests, assets, and health habits needed to live healthy, happy, and productive lives in caring relationships with others."

The family and school interventions the IOM identified and I describe in The Nurture Effect, help children learn self-regulation and social skills that are vital to their success. And they prevent myriad problems including delinquency, depression, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and academic failure. There are interventions for the prenatal period through adolescence. Most cost far less than the money they save in reduced criminal justice, health, care and educational expenses. And there is even some evidence these programs can lift families out of poverty. For example, a nine year follow-up of Parent Management Training, Oregon showed that mothers who receive the program increased their socio-economic status.

We can't expect all families that have lived in the stress of poverty to suddenly become more patient and skilled when their economic situation improves. Certainly, as the Costello study shows, some improvement will occur. But parents who have been scarred by a life of threat and stress need support from patient and caring people to develop the skills they need to nurture their children's successful development.

In sum, existing government programs have had an effect in reducing poverty among the elderly, but are currently insufficient to lift families with children out of poverty. We need more generous benefits via the Earned Income Tax Credit, TANF, and a higher minimum wage indexed to inflation. More generally, we need to make it a central goal of public policy to reduce the number of children who are growing up in poverty. And, at the same time, we need to make evidence-based family interventions available to every family that can benefit so that families can nurture the development of the next generation of caring and productive adults.