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What’s the main purpose of an anti-poverty program? The best answer I can come up with is “enabling recipients to live lives of reasonable well-being without the need for government assistance.” Keep in mind that I’m not talking here about welfare programs. There’s always going to be some overlap, of course, but what I’m getting at is the distinction between beneficiaries who are capable of self-sufficiency and those who aren’t.

Strangely enough, though – if this Washington Post article is representative – the goal of greater earnings power doesn’t seem to be much on the minds of the academics, other policy analysts, and politicians who dominate the national debate on the subject. Instead, if they’re to the right of the political center, they seem preoccupied with proving that all government transfer payments (even including entitlements like Social Security) do absolutely no good whatever, by any criteria. And if they’re on the left, their goal seems to be defending these programs against any and all criticisms.

The Post piece reports on academic research claiming that the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs is often understated because the federal government surveys that help gauge progress tend to suffer two major flaws. First, the target populations are harder to glean any answers from, for a variety of logistical and other reasons. And second, the answers often given significantly understate the levels of assistance beneficiaries receive.

According to University of Chicago public policy professor Bruce D. Meyer, the information gap is so big that “When the numbers are corrected, we see that government programs have about twice the effect that we think they do.” And as Post reporter Roberto Ferdman explains, ignoring the surveys’ shortcomings

can have a profound effect on policy discussions concerning the two.

“On the one hand, it makes it look like the poor are doing much worse than they are. The official poverty rate now is higher it was three decades ago, but by almost any measure the poor are better off than they were then. Meyer believes that a more accurate gauge would show that things are better or, at the very least, not worse.

“On the other, it does government assistance programs a great injustice, by making them appear less effective than they actually are.”

I’m all for developing the best quality data and basing policy decisions on them. But the debate depicted above is entirely beside what should be the point. Who seriously doubts that big enough government checks or enough food stamps etc. can bring and keep recipients above whatever level of living standards is officially defined as the poverty line – and indeed can do so indefinitely? In other words, does anyone dispute that giving low-income folks enough money can make them better off, at least materially? Is skepticism about this proposition really the main basis of conservative attacks on the Welfare State? And is “proving” the affirmative really the best defense its defenders can raise?

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the answer to both questions is “Yes.” Which would make a wager that America won’t be meaningfully alleviating poverty any time soon an awfully safe bet.

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