By Clay

Innovative Programs:  "But these are different times, and a new kind of anti-poverty push, less a movement than a technocrat’s dream, is quietly being tested here, a modest experiment that could help redefine a static national conversation about how to deal with intractable poverty of the sort that not only has overwhelmed the old projects like Foote Holmes, but also afflicts even the shiny new places like Cleaborn Pointe. Three years ago, Gordon-Cole was one of 600 people (most of them single mothers) selected for the Memphis Family Rewards Program, a widely watched trial that provides cash incentives to poor parents and their high school-age children for completing tasks that seem, at first glance, absurdly second nature for middle-class families. A student who compiles an acceptable school attendance record gets $40 a month, showing up for an annual dental or medical check-up means a $100 check, grades are monetized ($30 for an A, $20 for B, $10 for a C) and taking a college entrance exam like the ACT gets you a $50 check. Parents are also rewarded: Adults get a $150 monthly bonus, up to $1,800 a year, simply for working full-time.

The rewards system, modeled on similar programs in Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia principally aimed at the rural poor, is one of the few genuinely novel anti-poverty experiments to sprout up in the innovation desert that is post-1996 welfare reform in America. Enthusiasm for the programs, known as “conditional cash transfers” (CCTs), remains high internationally, and has been enthusiastically embraced by the Davos set. In a 2009 report, the World Bank hailed the success of CCTs in Mexico as “powerful proof that well-designed public programs can have significant effects on critical social indicators.”  

But paying poor people to perform quotidian tasks is a much harder sell in the up-from-the-bootstraps culture of the United States, and the cash transfers have been ridiculed or, at the very least, greeted with skepticism everywhere they’ve been tried in America. Even supporters admit they’re a bit dubious, as when the caseworkers administering the program in Memphis pointedly asked me why they couldn’t get a little extra cash for being responsible grown-ups...

It’s not yet clear how effective the Memphis program and its sister project in the South Bronx will prove, but proponents say that, barring a massive new federal jobs program for the poor modeled on the New Deal, it’s such smaller, targeted efforts that offer the best hope for those most in need of a push from poverty to the middle class, even if the political optics of paying a kid to get a C are awful."

This is the type of out of the box solution that we are looking for here at ARPI.  I'm not sure how I like the idea of paying people to do things that they should do, but I'm definitely interested in the idea of incentives for lower-income individuals to be paid for doing challenging things.  I remember an idea that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had to pay kids to take STEM courses in lieu of taking a fast food job.  I don't know if that project ever took off, but I'd really like to bring a similar program discussed in this article to the rural South.

Empire State of Mind:  De Blasio’s response to the affordable-housing problem isn’t to make it easier to build; it’s to harangue “greedy landlords” and propose cutting housing costs at their expense. He’s stocked the city’s Rent Guidelines Board with tenant-friendly commissioners and demanded that they freeze any rent increases in those buildings subject to rent regulations. The mayor’s plan might indeed hold down tenant costs in the regulated apartments. But it does nothing to restrain the steadily rising expenditures that the apartments’ landlords face, especially those imposed by the city. Over time, such an approach will lead to more housing-affordability problems, not fewer, as history has shown.”

NYC could be in trouble.  Ideology should never drive policy.  It can be a starting point from where you frame or perceive a problem— but if you are trying to solve the “2 Americas” problem with affordable housing for low-income workers and a middle class then everything should be on the table to try and fix it.  Doesn’t look like that’s the case, but I hope I’m wrong.  Any business would look to emulate or improve upon what their successful competitors are doing—and there aren’t too many cities doing more for the middle class than Houston.  

Teenage Mutant Brains:  "The number of teenagers who smoke marijuana is on the upswing, and those who do smoke pot may face a decline in brain functioning, psychologists told attendees at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention last week.  It needs to be emphasized that regular cannabis use, which we consider once a week, is not safe and may result in addiction and neurocognitive damage, especially in youth,” said Krista Lisdahl, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in a press release."

I've heard several suggestions that one way to fight poverty may be a sin tax on legalized marijuana.  I'm always concerned about the unintended consequences of policy prescriptions, and one issue with legalization is shown in the article linked above and another here arguing that crime is actually up in Colorado. Sometimes the devil you know...

Welfare Performance During the Recession"Overall, citing research by others, especially analysts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the authors point out that the work based tax credits, Unemployment Compensation, and SNAP removed over 12 million people from poverty during the first full year of the Great Recession. The expansion of these programs and new benefits enacted as part of the Stimulus bill removed another 7.5 million people from poverty, bringing the total to nearly 20 million who avoided poverty during the most recent recession."

I haven't gotten a chance to read the full report yet but Brookings usually does good work--so I'm sure it is sound.  I would have assumed the performance of the social safety net would have struggled during the Great Recession.  I'm interested in Amity Shlaes thoughts on this.

What If You Play Tweets Backward?  "The authors believe that the amount of symbolic language (caused by the limitation of 140 characters per Twitter message), the automated spam responses with seemingly related content, and the general interactive features of Twitter might combine several aspects that could induce or further aggravate psychosis." So, contrary to the headlines telling you that Twitter will induce psychosis, this is clearly a rare case and only relevant for the most vulnerable individuals who might find such secret messages in their ordinary lives, in other offline ways. But could "Twitter psychosis" actually exist?"

I just joined Twitter to get the ARPI word out there--so I'll let you know how I'm doing with my mental health.  It's easy to make light of this, but something to be concerned about if there is someone in your family with this propensity.  This is also a good time to mention that poverty can have a negative impact on mental health.

Question: Why Are Marriages Failing? Answer: Evolution. "A brave scientist has sought to answer a question that has baffled for centuries: why do women get premenstrual syndrome (PMS)?  Professor of Molecular Evolution, Michael Gillings, believes that in our evolutionary past there was a hidden selective advantage to PMS, because it increased the chance that infertile pair bonds would dissolve, thus improving the reproductive outcomes of women in such partnerships.  “In the past, women had many fewer menstrual cycles than women in modern societies, because they did not have control over reproduction and were either pregnant or breastfeeding most of the time,” said Gillings.  “Imagine that a woman was pair bonded with a sterile or infertile male. Then, even in the past, they would have had regular cycles. If women in these relationships exhibited PMS and this increased the likelihood of the pair bond dissolving, this would be a huge reproductive advantage."

I had to link to this article, and make some sort of tortured transition to poverty and ARPI.  That's a challenge I like!  One reason I started on this path was reading an obituary about James Q. Wilson and how he looked at people and wondered basic questions about their lives and how their lives could be improved.  I don't think the cause is evolution, but it is sad to see that divorce rates are rising in rural areas.  As the article illustrates, marriages are failing for due to larger trends that may surprise you. 

Airpower Cont'd: Now I feel like everything is a lie!: "At the BMW Museum in Munich, my affable tour guide, Anne Schmidt-Possiwal, explained that the blue-and-white company logo did not represent a spinning propeller, but was meant to show the colors of the Free State of Bavaria."

Uggghhhh.  I'm so disappointed--that has been a go-to tidbit of information for me for a long time.  It always has elicited a pretty tepid amazement in my worldliness and erudition.  Regardless, now I know I've been propagating lies!!!  But since I grew up in a kitsch Bavarian village I guess I need to change the factoid a bit.

Wonk Fight“But a few opinions do emerge triumphant. These lucky winners pierce through the fog and bubble up into prominence. When the centrifuge stops spinning, each ideological subculture is left with a go-to reaction it then takes into battle against the other side. Conservative Twitter and Fox News repeat one script ad nauseum, while progressive Twitter and MSNBC harp on another. Handwringing centrists cry about how little these two discourses resemble each other, and America spends another frantic news cycle loudly talking past itself.  Don’t make the mistake of pining for some halcyon days past; confirmation bias and motivated reasoning are certainly nothing new. But the Internet offers us an eerie, live-action shot of conventional wisdom crawling out of the primordial soup that is everyone’s ill-informed instincts.  This wearying process lurched into motion once against last month, as Rep. Paul Ryan strode to the podium to unveil a “discussion draft” of his new anti-poverty plan. It includes big-think reforms that would dramatically reorient the modern welfare state, small-bore tweaks that would nudge existing programs toward optimality, and a variety of mostly sound ideas in between. He would expand tax credits for the working poor, modernize higher-education accreditation and criminal sentencing laws, and permit entrepreneurial states to repurpose funds from Great Society-era welfare programs if they could devise a superior use for the money. A common motif ran through all Ryan’s rhetoric: He seeks to shrink the role of one-size-fits-all bureaucracies in anti-poverty policy, and instead to empower local organizations and communities to deliver relief and hold recipients to account.”

It has been really interesting to watch the tug of war over Ryan's poverty plan.  I assume that the majority of Americans tune this stuff out.  We are in a time of hardened positions, and this is a natural reaction when our worldviews are challenged or someone steps onto our ideological turf.  Jeff Spross is mentioned in the article above, and this is probably a more thoughtful response to some of the early comments cited in the article.  I welcome the debate and let the best ideas win.

First Social Impact Bond a Failure?: Well the headline findings of the recent results show that the SIB reduced reoffending by 8.4 per cent (from an eye-watering 155 reconvictions per 100 prisoners to 142 reconvictions), which isn’t enough to trigger a payment to the investors. That needed a 10 per cent reduction. But Social Finance is pretty confident it will generate greater reductions next time. Even if it stayed at the same level, that would be enough for investors would get paid next time because only a 7.5 per cent reduction is needed over all tranches to trigger a payment. Of course the other news is that they’re stopping the SIB two thirds of the way through, which isn’t a great advert for the model. But I’m fairly convinced that it isn’t practical to run the SIB alongside TR, so while it’s unfortunate that it’s stopping, it’s also probably inevitable. (Whether TR is a good idea is a very different question. My guess would be that it’s based on a good principle which is going to be badly applied, and it won’t work. But that’s another story.) The fact that investors haven’t made any money yet looks like the key fact to take from the results, but I’m not sure it’s that important. It doesn’t tell you whether the SIB delivered useful outcomes, just whether they hit a pretty arbitrary target."

This will definitely be ammunition for detractors, and it hurts that they won't carry this SIB through.  But calling the SIB idea a failure because of the performance of the first one is a mistake.  The idea is a really good one regardless of whether the programs that the SIB is based on is a success.

Make Your Life Extraordinary:  While I was in the Air Force at Maxwell my colleagues and I had to interview new judge advocate candidates.  We each had an icebreaker question.  Mine was: "What are your are your favorite movies of all-time? (capped at four.)"  Four may sound like a random number, but I have a four-way tie for my favorite movies of all-time.  2 of my 4 four favorite movies were Robin Williams films.  Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society.  Dead Poets Society has probably had the greatest impact on my life than any other film.  I saw it at a very young age, and Mr. Keating was the kind of iconoclast that I longed to be.  There isn't much I can add to what has already been better said about Mr. Williams--so I won't even try.  But I can say thank you.  Your performances inspired me to do what I am doing today.