Spotlight Exclusives

No Matter the Theory, Increasing Opportunity Is the Solution

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To understand what the current policy debate means for poverty, low-income programs, and economic opportunity, you have to first understand the two opposing theories of the case.

The first theory places individuals and their behavior at the center of the explanation for poverty in America, while the second emphasizes inequalities and discrimination at the starting gate. Under this theory, such forces kick out the ladders of opportunity that wealthier families take for granted.

I۪ve been thinking about this dichotomy ever since the day well before my 10th birthday that I first heard the Officer Krupke song from West Side Story. I am the child of liberal parents (a picture of FDR always hung prominently somewhere in our house) who clearly raised their children to subscribe to the societal model. But the song to which I۪m referring was sung by a bunch of hoodlums in a street gang called the Jets. They mocked the idea that their behavior was anyone۪s fault but their own, all while dancing and leaping around like crazy.

Such cognitive dissonance in such a young life. How could I square my parents۪ tuition that a class-based society blocked the opportunities of the poor, who then behaved in anti-social ways, with this mocking treatment by the Jets themselves?

After decades spent researching these two explanations, my predictable conclusion is that both matter and both are pretty hopelessly entangled. There are behaviors, like failing to finish high school, that clearly and significantly raise the likelihood of poverty. Poverty rates among dropouts are twice that of college grads. But there are just as clearly huge opportunity gaps that block deserving people from realizing their potential. 

And, of course, people don۪t fail to finish high school or become a single mom in their teen years in an economic vacuum. If any of the kids on the suburban cul-de-sac where I live were to drop out of high school, it would be a local scandal of unimaginable proportions. Yet, in the recent debate around the Chicago school teachers strike, we learned that about 40 percent fail to graduate high schooland their recent 60 percent graduation rate is actually a record.

Attributing causality is thus extremely difficult, if not fruitless. For a teenager to have a child out of wedlock surely must raise the probability of years in poverty. But a recent, careful study of the issue compared the economic outcomes of girls who had babies as unwed teens to similarly disadvantaged girls who would have done the same but for a miscarriage. They found those outcomes to be virtually the same, implying it۪s not just the birth that depressed the economic trajectory. The study also compared the teen moms to their non-mom sisters and found few economic differences later in life.

This suggests that maybe those dancing punks in West Side Story had it wrong after all.

But here۪s the thingI don۪t think it matters which theory is right. What matters is making sure people have access to the opportunities they need to realize their potential. This is something with which even the most conservative social critics agree. Charles Murray wrote in Losing Ground, his scathing critique of U.S. welfare programs, that “Billions for equal opportunity, not one cent for equal outcome.”

This is actually quite liberating. Liberals and conservatives can finally punt on the society vs. individual debate and agree on the following non-partisan principles and facts:

• People from all walks of life should have the opportunities they need to achieve their economic potential.

• That means they۪ll need decent housing, education, medical care, and nutrition (that۪s not to say where they should get these thingsjust that we can all agree that their absence implies unequal opportunity).

• With those necessities in place, opportunities for advancement should come from efforts, so if individuals are of working age and not disabled, they should work in the paid labor market.
Now we come to the place where liberals and conservatives part ways, but based not on abstract causal chains but on the fact of market failures.

We now have decades of evidence that, for too many families, markets fail to broadly provide either the platform for opportunities in the second bullet above decent educational options, adequate housing in safe neighborhoods or the ample employment opportunities at living wages that could lift people out of poverty.

Where the market fails, public policy must step up. But it can۪t do that if government lacks the resources it needs to support safety nets, education programs, job training, and even direct job creation if that۪s what it takes to provide enough work to support a pro-work, anti-poverty agenda.

At the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, we۪ve looked carefully at the impact on low-income programs of the very important budget crafted by Representative Paul Ryan. We۪ve found that 62 percent of his $5.3 trillion in proposed nondefense spending cuts over ten years would come from low-income programs, including Medicaid, Pell Grants, food stamps, and job training.

Regardless of your theory of the case whether you hold the individual or the society to blame pursuing cuts of this magnitude targeted at those with limited resources is inconsistent with the fundamental American value of equal opportunity. It۪s kicking away the ladders at a time when, if anything, the holes from which the poor are trying to climb out are deeper than ever.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Jared Bernstein served as chief economist and economic advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, and a member of President Obama۪s economic team.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty.  If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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