Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Reduce poverty by promoting schools, families

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
updated 1:51 PM EST, Thu January 17, 2013
People wait to apply for the federal food stamps program in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
People wait to apply for the federal food stamps program in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: Often forgotten in our national political discourse are the poor
  • Bennett: More government intervention may not solve the problem of poverty
  • He says education, family values, earned success are the pillars of upward mobility
  • Bennett: The first step to alleviating poverty is to promote schools, families, churches

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- Often forgotten in our national political discourse are those who need our attention the most: the poor.

On Thursday evening in Washington, D.C., prominent broadcaster and author Tavis Smiley is setting out to remedy the situation with an important bipartisan discussion of poverty in America entitled, "Vision for a New America: A Future Without Poverty." The goal of the discussion, for which Smiley deserves credit, is to bring much-deserved attention and aid to America's poor.

Systemic poverty maligns every generation of Americans, but the 2008 recession and subsequent lackluster recovery have exaggerated the problem to a crisis level.

William Bennett
William Bennett

Smiley cites government figures that nearly half of all Americans are living in or near poverty. In 2011, the Census Bureau found that 49.7 million Americans were in actual poverty and the national poverty rate topped 16%. Worse, almost 20% of American children live in poverty.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Food stamp use hit a record high in June of 2012 with 46.7 million Americans. Since October 2008, food stamp use has jumped more than 50%. An estimated one in four children was on food stamps in 2011.

For decades, America has wrestled with poverty but with little success. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson famously declared "war on poverty." A 2012 study by the Cato Institute estimates that the United States has spent roughly $15 trillion since then, and yet the poverty rate is close to where it was more than 40 years ago. Cato reports that the United States spends nearly $1 trillion a year between federal and state programs to fight poverty.

That amounts to more than $20,000 per poor person and more than $60,000 for a family of three. And yet, the problem has not improved.

Mayor Booker: Food stamp living is hard

Both liberals and conservatives recognize this reality. However, Smiley and some on the left think the problem is that the government has not gone far enough. They call for more government intervention, like living wages and expanded social services. Granted, the government has a role in aiding the poor, particularly the disabled, handicapped and those who are poor largely at no fault of their own.

But if history is any indicator, government transactions and services don't seem to be the key drivers of upward mobility. In fact, they can have the opposite effect and insulate lower classes from upward mobility.

Instead, conservatives would argue that education, earned success and the all-important mediating institutions -- families, churches, communities, private and philanthropic enterprises, associations of coaches, teachers, parents, doctors, civil servants and religious and non-religious volunteers, the Boy Scouts and other worthy mentoring groups, all what Edmund Burke called the "little platoons" that make up healthy civil society -- are the pillars of upward mobility.

The evidence seems to support that. In a landmark study, the Brookings Institution found that young adults who finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children have just a 2% chance of falling into poverty and a 74% chance of ending up in the middle class. Furthermore, young adults who violate all three conditions have a 76% chance of ending up in poverty and only a 7% chance of making it to the middle class.

The threshold for middle-class success -- sound education and moral training -- is not high, but even on these measures our nation is falling short.

Our education system is failing our children. In Washington, D.C., public schools, only 59% of high school students graduated on time in the 2010-2011 school year. We're not talking about academic excellence here, just basic graduation and completion of high school. It should come as no surprise then that the poverty rate in Washington was 18.7% in 2011.

While many high school dropouts join the ranks of low-wage workers or the unemployed, American employers estimate 3 million skilled jobs are available right now. But our students, specifically our poor and underprivileged, lack the skills and education to fill those jobs. That must be remedied.

At the same time, America's family unit is decaying in record fashion. In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of Labor and later a U.S. senator, authored The Moynihan Report to bring light to the economic and social breakdown of the black family. He warned about the catastrophic out-of-wedlock birth rate for blacks, which was at that time less than 25%. Today, it is more than 70% for blacks and more than 40% for all Americans.

With the nucleus of the family in shambles, the fabric of American society is unraveling one thread at a time. Conservatives are often criticized for harping on family values, but what many of the critics fail to acknowledge is that strong, healthy families are essential for a strong, healthy economy. We know that the poverty rate is higher among single parent households than in families with married couples. In fact, the marriage gap accounts for much of the income inequality in the labor force today.

The first step to alleviating poverty is to promote better schools, families and churches. A national conversation about poverty must include these critical institutions. While we may disagree on economic solutions, Tavis Smiley acknowledges this much and I'm encouraged that with voices like his we can start building consensus around issues crucial to the upward mobility of many poor and disadvantaged Americans.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
updated 2:28 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
updated 2:41 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
updated 8:08 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
updated 6:41 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
updated 11:49 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
updated 12:59 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
updated 1:49 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
updated 3:03 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
updated 6:37 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
updated 9:26 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
updated 7:33 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
updated 2:14 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
updated 11:26 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT