11/02/2011 09:12 am ET Updated Jan 02, 2012

Memo to GOP: Time to Notice Poverty

In the 1990s, many Republicans took the problem of hard-core poverty seriously. (One of those poverty-conscious Republicans was Sen. Rick Santorum, now the one presidential candidate who takes seriously the data on faltering upward mobility in America.)

In 1999 and 2000, candidate George W. Bush promised to improve educational outcomes for students from poor families. He defended the Earned Income Tax Credit. He drew attention to the problems facing the children of prisoners.

To put it mildly, poverty alleviation has not been a Republican theme in the current cycle.

To some degree, this is an understandable reaction to the disappointments of the Bush presidency.

But what is understandable is not necessarily right -- and this disregard of the poverty problem is wrong, all the more wrong because of the dismaying surge in poverty since 2008.

Disregard of poverty is especially wrong from the point of view of people who want to cut government budgets. Poor people get sicker (and then have to be covered by Medicaid). They commit crimes (and must be sentenced to costly prison terms). They cost the Treasury more in benefits than they contribute in taxes.

Disregard of poverty is dangerous because sooner or later, society will decide to care about poverty again -- and may then be susceptible to wrongheaded and costly solutions, such as trying to enrich the poor by weakening credit standards so that they can speculate on real estate. Not a good plan, it turns out.

Historically, America's main anti-poverty program has been the public schools. Americans have trusted to quality education to raise the poor out of poverty over a generation or two. No Child Left Behind is only the latest expression of this hope. In recent decades, however, these hopes have been dashed. The U.S. spends more and more on schooling -- even as poverty seems to become more pervasive, intractable and unescapable.

This failure should not surprise us. By the time a child enters the public school system, that child's life chances have already been largely set. By age five, it's already getting very late to redirect the human trajectory.

It comes down to this: poor people are expensive. The money they don't earn in wages they still cost society in terms of prison cells and emergency room visits.

In the 1990s, the U.S. made progress against poverty for the first time since the 1960s, thanks to tight labor markets. That progress stopped in the 2000s, as 10 million new migrants (half of them illegal) put slack in labor markets. The progress has gone into reverse since 2008 as a protracted economic crisis has pushed millions of former workers into unemployment.

We can hope that labor market recovery will pull many of those workers back out of poverty.

But even if and when such a labor market recovery occurs - even if we could get people working as if it were 1999 - it would still be true that more than 1 in 10 Americans would be poor.

Now in one sense, the poor will always be with us: the laws of statistics dictate that there must always be a bottom 10%.

It's also true that the poor in America, even in 2011, are not absolutely destitute. They don't starve, they don't freeze to death, they possess refrigerators and other appliances (even if they obtain them through rent-to-own or credit programs that ensure they pay much more for these machines than non-poor Americans do).

That said, in absolute terms, the American poor know more want and insecurity than poor people in other advanced democracies. The American poor also impose more social cost than the poor in other advanced democracies.

The 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections in the last year before the economic crisis - up from less than $11 billion in 1988, according to the Pew Center on the States. More than 1 American in 100 is held behind bars, a rate of incarceration more than seven times higher than Germany's.

Likewise, the lack of basic healthcare sends poor people to emergency rooms at an amazing rate. In 2009, the state of Mississippi reported more than 583 visits to an emergency room for every 1000 people in the state. Maine reported 601. West Virginia reported 671.

Investments that reduced those social demands would be money well spent.

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