We hear the argument made all the time: Investments we make now in safety-net programs such as food stamps, early childhood education and unemployment benefits pay off handsomely in the long run with reduced costs for health care, remedial education and crime prevention.

No one has a serious disagreement with the proposition, but yet we find it difficult to really act on it. Sometimes, we need to focus on more urgent matters, such as big shortfalls in government budgets. It can be challenging to stay focused on the long run. And sometimes, politics just gets in the way.

Now, an Oregon State University assistant professor has offered another piece of evidence to support the argument: David Rothwell of OSU's College of Public Health and Human Sciences is the lead author of a study showing that social policies such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act enacted during the Great Recession likely had a role in keeping child poverty rates lower than they would have been without the policies — possibly by as much as 5 percent. (The National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University estimates that 21 percent of U.S. children, about 15 million, live in households with income under the federal poverty threshold. The percentage in Oregon is also 21 percent, the center said, although it notes that the way the U.S. officially measures poverty is outdated.)

For the study, Rothwell and co-author Annie McEwen of Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, examined child poverty rates between 2007 and 2010 in the United States and four other countries with similar demographics: the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and Australia. (The study was recently published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.) 

Rothwell and McEwen found that child poverty declined between 2007 and 2010 in Canada and the United Kingdom, increased in Australia and Ireland, and remained unchanged in the United States. Changes in income accounted for the decline in Canada and the increases in Australia and Ireland. In the United Kingdom, changes to the social safety net were associated with declines in the poverty rate.

In the United States, the study indicated, social policy changes (primarily 2009's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) played a role in offsetting wage declines. Child poverty rates stayed unchanged in the United States in the time period studied.

That's important, Rothwell said, because the evidence is clear that childhood poverty can have a lifetime impact on those children. Research has shown that children who grow up in poverty are more likely to struggle in school, suffer long-term health problems and earn less money during their lifetimes. Also troubling is recent research showing that the gap between the poor and nonpoor is expanding, stretching a frayed safety net even further.

Rothwell noted that the safety net programs of the New Deal and Great Society eras were enacted at a time when family structures were much different. Traditional two-parent families are less frequent these days, but our social programs have not adapted to reflect that new reality. "Families are a lot more complex than they were in the New Deal and Great Society programs," he said. "We need to update our safety net programs to serve the realities of our families."

And yet another factor is at play: More families need to be aware of the resources that are available to them. Rothwell pointed, as an example, to the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program that offers real benefit to poor families, but one that is underutilized. "It's a perplexing problem because there's so much we don't know," he said.

Rothwell has been studying poverty for 15 years now, and I had to ask: Doesn't that get depressing?

He laughed, but then turned serious again: It's work, he said, that gets at some of the bigger questions we face as a nation. And he hopes it's work that helps provide information about programs and options that have proven effective at reducing poverty — "insights as to what may be possible if we moved in that direction." (mm)

Hall of Fame music

Nominations continue to roll in for the Think Too Much Holiday Music Hall of Fame: Which performances of holiday standards are so definitive that it should be illegal for anyone else to record them? Think of records like Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" or Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," the two inaugural inductees into the hall. 

I'm still accepting nominations for this year's honorees, but time is growing short: In order to be considered for the Dec. 24 column, nominations must be submitted by the end of the day next Sunday, Dec. 17. Send nominations to mike.mcinally@lee.net or phone 541-758-9502. 

Mike McInally is editor of the Democrat-Herald and the Gazette-Times. Contact him at mike.mcinally@lee.net.

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