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A New Direction in the War on Poverty

By Paul Ryan
Wall Street Journal, Saturday Essay

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Washington, Jan 24 | comments

One day at Pulaski High School in Milwaukee, a fight broke out between two students. The staff separated them, but one of the students, a young woman named Marianna, refused to relent. She continued to fight—now with the staff—and to cause a stir. Then a call went out over the school radio for "Lulu" to respond. Soon, Marianna began to calm down. Once she arrived, Lulu quickly defused the situation. Of all the people at Pulaski High—all the teachers and administrators—only one person got through to Marianna that day, and it was Lulu.
 
"Lulu" is Mrs. Louisa, one of five youth advisers in Pulaski High's Violence-Free Zone program. Along with program head Andre Robinson and site supervisor Naomi Perez, they work as a band of roving mentors. On a typical day, you'll find them walking the halls in black polo shirts. They chat with students, break up fights and help with homework. Most of them are recent alumni who grew up in the inner city, and they have the scars to prove it. They've been part of gangs. They've seen violence firsthand.
 
But they don't have education degrees or state certification. They have something more important: credibility. The youth advisers understand what the students are going through because they've had the same struggles. That credibility creates trust, and so the students listen to them. In the two years since the program started, suspensions at Pulaski High are down by 60%, and daily attendance is up by nearly 10%. Fourteen gangs used to roam the school grounds; today, they've all but disappeared. The school tried all sorts of things to keep students safe—more police presence, more cameras. But only this program worked.
 
Mrs. Louisa, Mrs. Perez and Mr. Robinson aren't just keeping kids in school; they're fighting poverty on the front lines. If you graduate from high school, you're much less likely to end up poor. According to the Census Bureau, a high-school graduate makes $10,000 a year more, on average, than a high-school dropout, and a college graduate makes $36,000 more. Ever since that day at Pulaski High, Marianna has improved her grades and now she is looking at colleges. Yet for all its professed concern about families in need, Washington is more concerned with protecting the status quo than with pursuing what actually works.
 
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. For years, politicians have pointed to the money they've spent or the programs they've created. But despite trillions of dollars in spending, 47 million Americans still live in poverty today. And the reason is simple: Poverty isn't just a form of deprivation; it's a form of isolation. Crime, drugs and broken families are dragging down millions of Americans. On every measure from education levels to marriage rates, poor families are drifting further away from the middle class.
 
And Washington is deepening the divide.
 

To read the full essay: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304632204579337000386366182

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