The so-called War on Poverty has been fantastically successful at eradicating poverty among the old and devastatingly miserable at eradicating poverty among the young. It’s not hard to see why. It’s easy to reduce or eliminate poverty among people, such as seniors, who are not expected to work: Give them money and free services, like Social Security and Medicare. Voilà, problem solved. What our young people require, however, is so much more. And it’s nothing a government program can provide.
What they need, first and foremost, are parents with the emotional stability, resources, and commitment to do their most important job well. That means making good decisions every day about what they will or won’t expect of their kids; the time they will or won’t spend with them; the books they will or won’t read to them; the experiences they will or won’t provide. It shouldn’t be controversial to say, then, that many poor parents struggle to make these good decisions, often because they themselves are still growing up and are trying to do the job alone.
If we want to reduce intergenerational poverty—the real social scourge in America—we need an all-out effort to encourage everyone to follow a simple rule: Don’t have kids until you are ready to provide for them, emotionally and financially.
That means taking children who are growing up today in dysfunctional families and dysfunctional communities, and often attending dysfunctional schools, and transporting them into environments that can, as President George W. Bush would say, “touch their hearts.” The most promising among these are schools of choice that prepare students academically and vocationally—so that they might see a future for themselves beyond the walls of poverty—but also emotionally, socially, and spiritually. These are schools of character and conviction, schools with a clear sense of moral purpose, that aren’t bashful about shaping kids’ characters and compasses.
Such schools should be measured by the degree to which their graduates are college- and career-ready, yes, but also fatherhood-ready and motherhood-ready. The true measure of the impact of education reform—or any other campaign in the War on Poverty—is whether it produces self-sufficient citizens who can build strong and healthy families for the next generation.
This piece originally appeared in a National Reveiw Online symposium entitled, "The War on Poverty at 50." See also Chester E. Finn, Jr.'s and Mitch Pearlstein's contributions.