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Senator Tom Brewer
How do you define “success” when it comes to a government poverty program?
When less people need government assistance, I think that is success. As I’ve said before, the focus of government programs is on making poverty less miserable. The enthusiasm many politicians have toward expanding government poverty programs should, with equal vigor, be directed to policies that make poverty more escapable. Just as we have a collective duty to help those who cannot help themselves deal with the hardships of poverty, we should be working just as hard to permanently lift them out of it and end their dependence on government programs.
In a couple weeks we’ll be in the middle of a budget debate. We’re facing a nearly $200 million deficit because tax revenues did not come in as forecast. Much of the next session will be consumed by the argument over what to cut. The Department of Health and Human Services has a $1.5 billion budget. Much of this is devoted to poverty programs. Just about 35 cents of every tax dollar we appropriate in spending goes to this agency. It doesn’t take an advanced math degree to realize that if you are consuming 35% of the budget, your agency will very likely face serious scrutiny when cuts have to be made. Its times like these I wish we could have been measuring success in poverty programs by how many Nebraskans no longer needed them.
I read a big poverty study done by the Brookings Institute recently. In a nutshell it said if a young person did three things, not only would they avoid poverty, they would end up in the middle class.
1. Graduate high school.
2. Get a job.
3. Don’t have children until you’re married and have completed 1 & 2.
I asked myself, what can government do to provide incentives for people to accomplish these three things? What are we doing right now? Are we doing the right things? Are we doing the right things well?
According to the Omaha World Herald, the state-wide high school graduation rate in Nebraska is 89%. That puts us 5th highest in the country. The national average 82%. Among minorities however, Nebraska’s high school graduation rate falls to 79%. What leads 11% of our young people to the terrible mistake of not graduating high school? What programs are the taxpayers of Nebraska paying for right now that incentivizes a young person to graduate from high school? What is the performance of this program? Has it moved the needle? Are things improving because of it?
When I looked at the “get a job” metric, I found some troubling information. According to US News and World Report, Nebraska has the worst state economy in the country. At the same time, our unemployment rate is at a historic low of 2.8 percent and the number people employed is at an all-time high. Statistically speaking, we have just enough jobs to employ every person willing and able to work. Nebraska’s Labor Participation Rate is one of the best in the country at around 70%. These employment numbers also mean that even if everyone living in poverty and depending on government assistance wanted to, it is increasingly difficult for them to move from government assistance to work. Young, unskilled Nebraskan’s living in poverty have it the worst. What can we do to attract more business to Nebraska so more jobs will be available? Do Nebraska’s high tax policies help this? What effect does raising the minimum wage have on creating new jobs for young, unskilled workers just entering the workforce? What effect does illegal immigration have on young, unskilled workers finding work?
I’ll spend more time with this subject latter in the session. One thing is clear; since the early 1960s when President Johnson started the “War on Poverty” our country has poured over $20 trillion dollars into a host of poverty programs. The poverty rate in 1966 was 14.7%. Today the national poverty rate is 13.5 percent. If simply giving people money through more government spending and bureaucracy actually helped lift people out poverty, then we would have won the war on poverty a long time ago.
Please contact my office with any comments, questions or concerns. Email me at; email@example.com. Mail a letter to; Sen. Tom Brewer, Room #1202, P.O. Box 94604, Lincoln, NE 68509 or call us at (402) 471-2628.