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Slash Poverty and the Rest Will Get Easier

Bruce Western

April 04, 2023

Can social policy end mass incarceration and help cities thrive?

Can social policy end mass incarceration and help cities thrive?

Advocates for fundamental change in the criminal justice system often point to social policy as a way to create prosperous and thriving communities. The sociologist Rashawn Ray writes that “defund the police” does not mean abolishing policing. Instead, to him and many others, it means that funding “should be directed away from police to other government agencies.” In explaining the defund movement, activists have emphasized the importance of spending on social services to improve mental health and reduce addiction and homelessness. A recent essay by anti-violence leaders Amanda Alexander and Danielle Sered asks what makes a city safe. Instead of relying on police or prisons, their answer points to community demands for education, affordable housing and job training and placement. 

From this perspective, social policy aimed at eliminating poverty and expanding economic opportunity is essential to defeating mass incarceration and promoting community life. But what is the evidence that robust social policy can play this role in erasing punitive excess and helping cities thrive?

Several new studies provide evidence for the broad effects of social policy on community life and human development over the life course. One line of research examines the impact of Medicaid expansion on crime and arrest rates. For example, Jessica Simes and Jaquelyn Jahn compared arrest trends in expansion and non-expansion counties. They found that Medicaid expansion is associated with a 20% to 30% reduction in violent arrests, and a 25% to 40% lower rate of drug arrests. Similar findings are reported in other recent studies, and additional evidence suggests that expanded treatment for substance-use disorders is one channel connecting healthcare coverage to reductions in crime and arrests.

Other recent research has examined the effects of income-support programs. Manasi Deshpande and Michael Mueller-Smith studied the criminal involvement of young people who lost eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) at age 18 following the 1996 welfare reform. They found that continuing SSI payments reduced the number of criminal charges by 20% over the following two decades.

The long-run effects of safety net programs for young people were recently reviewed by Anna Aizer and her colleagues. Research shows that Medicaid eligibility at birth is associated with higher rates of college enrollment, reduced mortality and improved economic outcomes in young adulthood. People who had access to food stamps in early childhood decades later experienced increased earnings, better neighborhood quality and reduced poverty, mortality and incarceration.

Why do safety net policies have these broad effects? The answer lies in the multidimensional character of poverty. Poverty is a magnet around which a whole array of problems can cluster. For many practitioners and researchers who study the field, the concept is narrowly defined in terms of low income. Beginning in 1963, the federal government set a poverty line that was intended to specify the income level a family needed to maintain a minimal level of nutrition. In 2022 for a household of four, that line was $27,750.

Communities cannot thrive when a critical mass of those within them are contending with poverty.

But poverty defined only in terms of income fails to capture how material well-being allows individuals to participate more fully in their communities and fulfill their individual potential. To accommodate these dimensions of social life that accompany well-being, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum argue that poverty is multidimensional, and freedom from poverty also involves fundamental rights to a long life, good health, nourishment, shelter, protection against violence, freedom from fear and anxiety, and freedoms of personal creativity and association. 

Survey data illustrate the close connections of income poverty to a wide variety of other life conditions. Columbia University’s Poverty Tracker survey provides a detailed measurement of income for a sample of New Yorkers, set alongside adverse life events and other kinds of personal hardship. The graph below illustrates the relative risk of different kinds of adversity for poor survey respondents (with poverty as defined by the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure, which accounts for income and support from government programs) compared to non-poor. For example, poor people are 1.5 times more likely to experience job loss than the non-poor.

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In New York City, the supplemental poverty rate in the Poverty Tracker Survey in 2015–2016 was about 21%, which is to say, the lower fifth of New Yorkers in terms of income was classified as poor. Poverty in New York means you are more than twice as likely to have had your gas or electricity shut off in the last 12 months, as well as more than twice as likely to be in poor health or to say that you live in a bad neighborhood. You are about 50% more likely to have had symptoms of depression or to have recently moved. Your family is also more likely to have faced the challenges of losing employment or to have been victimized by crime.

Communities cannot thrive when a critical mass of those within them are contending with poverty. In America’s richest large city, New York, social services are more abundant and social benefits are more generous than nearly anywhere else in the country. Still, destitution is visible everywhere.

Because a wide variety of problems cluster around poverty, addressing poverty in its multilayered reality is the basic condition for significantly improving the collective life of communities.

The level of poverty we tolerate is a political choice.

Improving community life by working to eliminate poverty may sound naive. In crime policy conversations, there’s a weariness with root causes. Poverty is a swamp that you just have to walk around. After all, doesn’t eliminating poverty mean eliminating capitalism, an approach that works better in a sociology seminar than in the real world? Aren’t we destined to remain a society of winners and losers? 

In reality, the level of poverty we tolerate is a political choice. U.S. anti-poverty policy has been shaped by racist politics that, at its federal inception, denied coverage to agricultural workers and domestic workers, thereby reserving benefits for whites. Organized labor — usually a force for welfare state development — is also relatively weak in the United States. As a result, U.S. social policy is anemic by international standards, and the material conditions of poverty are brutal.

Despite the political obstacles, pathbreaking changes have been made over the last decade or so. We’ve already seen research evidence on the broader effects of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, President Biden and Congress passed a Child Tax Credit that provided benefits up to $3,600, with eligibility on a sliding scale for families with incomes up to $150,000. Commentators hailed the measure as a type of universal basic income. Although the benefits were widely distributed, the CTC lifted 2.9 million mostly Black and Latino children out of poverty. The child poverty rate was slashed by nearly two-thirds, from 14% in 2017 to 5.2% by 2021. By the end of 2021, the Senate got within just one vote of making the tax credit permanent.

We should think of a broad zero-poverty policy regime as laying a foundation on which other change becomes possible.

The full benefits of these and other changes may be slow to emerge as children pass through adolescence and into adulthood. As a result, we can’t expect the poverty rate to move in lockstep with crime and other social indicators. Instead, we should think of a broad zero-poverty policy regime as laying a foundation on which other change becomes possible.

Improving infrastructure, greening public space, supporting arts projects, building libraries, promoting community organizations: All these community investments can yield greater returns when local residents have stability in daily life and a basic level of material well-being. Such a project sets our sights high. Poverty abolition isn’t just about improving public health or reducing crime at the margins. It’s about creating the basic conditions in which people can fulfill their potential and communities can flourish.