Photo by Téalin Robinson
The IRP’s war on poverty continues
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty in response to a national poverty rate of almost a quarter of the population living in poverty. Through the Office of Economic Opportunity, Johnson hoped to create and administer forward-thinking solutions to the crisis.
The OEO was abolished in 1981, but it left behind some programs that are still working to answer questions and solve problems related to poverty in 2018.
At UW-Madison, the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) continues to tackle these issues and inform public policy on poverty, long after Johnson’s war on poverty has come to an end.
The Daily Cardinal sat down with Professor Lawrence Berger, the director of the IRP, to discuss the institute’s past successes, present research, and future endeavors.
When the IRP was founded in 1966, the OEO sought to embed itself within a university where social policy research was already a fundamental aspect in its work, which made UW-Madison a viable candidate.
Many UW faculty members served on President Johnson’s Council of Economic Advisors as well, including the institute’s first president Robert Lampman, which cemented UW as the home of the Institute.
“[Lampman] basically drafted what went on to be the roadmap for the War on Poverty,” Berger stated. “When [the OEO] were going to roll out the War on Poverty, they consulted the Defense Department and asked them how to run a war. The Defense Department said they need a RAND, a think tank that’s outside of Washington DC, that’s non-partisan, which will give them the most rigorous evidence … and advise them on policy with no motive other than producing the best anti-poverty policy.”
Early studies within the IRP focused on the basic questions involving poverty in the United States: what does being “poor” mean? How do we measure it? How many people in the US are living in “poverty?”
Research conducted in the early years of the IRP helped not only establish answers to these questions, but also analyzed how effective government policy regarding poverty could be.
As the years have gone on, the IRP has continued to research and develop solutions related to poverty in the United States, while influencing government policy with their findings, even with lessened support from the government.
“In real money, the dollars have shrunk considerably since 1966,” Berger said. “Federal funding is key in that it supports translation of rigorous research into palatable terms, and it allows us to disseminate that work to policy makers, practitioners, and the public.”
According to Berger, the IRP’s influence on poverty policy both historically and in recent years has gone well beyond the scope of just Wisconsin’s poverty issues. For example, a study conducted in the late 1990s by the IRP involving the complete payment of child support to families managed to change federal law.
“When people receive cash welfare from government, and child support is paid on their behalf, the government generally keeps most of the child support to repay the cost of public welfare, and give the family a passthrough of a small amount of it. Wisconsin did an experiment, which asked ‘What if we passed through all of the child support owed to the families?’”
“It turned out that doing this passthrough had no work disincentives, people were better off financially, they received more child support, there were no marriage disincentives, there were no perverse fertility effects, and this resulted in a change in federal law. Federal law now allows states to pass through the entire amount of child support owed to resident parents and children, and it makes children better off.”
While the Institute for Research on Poverty has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1966, Professor Berger acknowledges that there is always more room to grow.
“One of the directions I would love to see IRP continue to grow in is to get more and more involved in projects… getting things designed, implemented, and evaluated, really figuring out what we can do to decrease poverty and its effects, and producing rigorous evidence in that front,” he said. “The Government needs to have good evidence to make decisions about how to use scarce resources, and the IRP is really core to producing that information, and to getting it to the public.”