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Higher Ground

Higher Ground: New Hope for the Working Poor and Their Children

Greg J. Duncan
Aletha C. Huston
Thomas S. Weisner
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    Higher Ground
    Book Description:

    During the 1990s, growing demands to end chronic welfare dependency culminated in the 1996 federal “welfare-to-work” reforms. But regardless of welfare reform, the United States has always been home to a large population of working poor—people who remain poor even when they work and do not receive welfare. In a concentrated effort to address the problems of the working poor, a coalition of community activists and business leaders in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, launched New Hope, an experimental program that boosted employment among the city’s poor while reducing poverty and improving children’s lives. In Higher Ground, Greg Duncan, Aletha Huston, and Thomas Weisner provide a compelling look at how New Hope can serve as a model for national anti-poverty policies. New Hope was a social contract—not a welfare program—in which participants were required to work a minimum of 30 hours a week in order to be eligible for earnings supplements and health and child care subsidies. All participants had access to career counseling and temporary community service jobs. Drawing on evidence from surveys, public records of employment and earnings, in-depth interviews, and ethnographic observation, Higher Ground tells the story of this ambitious three-year social experiment and evaluates how participants fared relative to a control group. The results were highly encouraging. Poverty rates declined among families that participated in the program. Employment and earnings increased among participants who were not initially working full-time, relative to their counterparts in a control group. For those who had faced just one significant barrier to employment (such as a lack of access to child care or a spotty employment history), these gains lasted years after the program ended. Increased income, combined with New Hope’s subsidies for child care and health care, brought marked improvements to the well-being and development of participants’ children. Enrollment in child care centers increased, and fewer medical needs went unmet. Children performed better in school and exhibited fewer behavioral problems, and gains were particularly dramatic for boys, who are at the greatest risk for poor academic performance and behavioral disorders. As America takes stock of the successes and shortcomings of the Clinton-era welfare reforms, the authors convincingly demonstrate why New Hope could be a model for state and national policies to assist the working poor. Evidence based and insightfully written, Higher Ground illuminates how policymakers can make work pay for families struggling to escape poverty.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-172-8
    Subjects: Economics, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. About the Authors
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Chapter 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    ″If you work, you should not be poor.″ This is the implicit social contract in America. Work is a fundamental value in the United States, and hard work should bring rewards. Until recently, it generally did. As the prosperity of the country grew in the years after World War II, so did the fortunes of most of its people. In the last twenty-five years, however, the earnings of low-skilled workers have fallen further behind. It is no longer true that a rising tide lifts all boats.

    The working poor are disproportionately minorities and women, particularly single mothers. Many lack the...

  6. Chapter 2 Creating New Hope
    (pp. 15-30)

    David Riemer′s views on work and welfare, views that were at the core of New Hope, can be traced directly back to the revolutionary policies of Harry Hopkins and Franklin Roosevelt. He explained as follows:

    When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933, he inherited a welfare system. You have to remember that his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, was a brilliant engineer, a very compassionate man, and had done a terrific job while in charge of famine relief in Belgium and northern France following World War I. When the Depression hit, his response was, ″Well, let′s do something like that again.″...

  7. Chapter 3 Participants
    (pp. 31-41)

    After six years of planning, New Hope began operating in August 1994. Among those selected by the lottery to participate were Lakeisha, Inez, and Elena (see figures 3.1 to 3.3).

    In 1994, Lakeisha was a youthful African American woman with smooth, caramel-colored skin and light-brown freckles on her nose and cheeks. Her hair was relaxed, bone straight, and cut in a short bob, and her clothes were always starched and pressed. She had arrived in Milwaukee at age nine, sent by her mother from a state in the mid-South to live with her grandmother. After her grandmother died, four years...

  8. Chapter 4 The Evaluation
    (pp. 42-50)

    The random-assignment lottery method of selecting participants was critical in measuring New Hope′s impacts. Random assignment involved recruiting twice as many people as the program could afford and then, in effect, flipping a coin to determine who became eligible for benefits and who was assigned to the control group. Random assignment is the core method for medical trials and laboratory experiments in the sciences. Data collected from random-assignment studies are revered by most social scientists and policy experts—″nectar of the gods,″ as National Advisory Board member Rob Hollister put it—most of whom have no choice but to conduct...

  9. Chapter 5 Work and Poverty
    (pp. 51-67)

    She was raised by a mother on welfare and had received welfare herself before applying to New Hope, but Inez does not fit the profile of a hard-to-employ single mother. She graduated from high school on schedule, went to work in a bank, and could not wait to get back to work when Jorge, her first-born, reached his first birthday. Two years into New Hope, our fieldworker asked her what jobs she thought she might be able to get. ″I can get any kind of job I want to if I just try hard enough,″ she replied. ″If I don′t...

  10. Chapter 6 Children
    (pp. 68-81)

    When Inez enrolled in New Hope, her oldest child, Jorge, was not yet two years old. He started life with a number of strikes against him. His mother was an unmarried teenager who conceived him with a man who was dealing drugs and ended up in prison. She was soon receiving welfare and living with Marco, who fathered Jorge′s younger brother, Martín.

    When we first met Jorge in 1998, Inez was in her third year of New Hope. Jorge was a small, dark-haired, lively four-year-old with big brown eyes, who, according to his mother, acted like a seven-year-old. Marco and...

  11. Chapter 7 Families
    (pp. 82-99)

    To understand how New Hope affected children and their families, we begin with a snapshot of Lakeisha′s life, showing how family and work played out in her daily routine. Our imagined bus ride is based on Lakeisha′s descriptions of her daily life and her thoughts about her job, Kevin, the children, and how she managed their competing demands to meet her goals. It is a story woven from the many conversations we had with her during a period of several years and our own observations, but it is entirely true to the accounts that Lakeisha and the fieldworker who knew...

  12. Chapter 8 New Hope′s Lessons
    (pp. 100-112)

    In 2004, a full decade after she became eligible for New Hope′s benefits, Lakeisha, at age thirty-three, was still with Kevin, and they had purchased a small, well-kept house in a quiet, safe northside Milwaukee neighborhood. She and Kevin were planning to marry since Lakeisha had filed for divorce from Tyrone. She worked at the same agency that provided her second New Hope community service job, at an annual salary of a little more than $17,000 with fringe benefits. She did data entry and office coordination work, and still found time to lend an ear when the people coming into...

  13. Chapter 9 New Hope and National Policy
    (pp. 113-121)

    Forged by a coalition of community activists and local business leaders, New Hope′s core principles reflect widely held views on what America′s social contract with low-skilled workers should be. It is demanding, requiring people to work full time to be eligible for its benefits. In return, the package of benefits empowers less-skilled workers by supplying them with the resources they need to provide for themselves and their families.

    New Hope was not designed to be a comprehensive solution to all of the problems of low-income adults and families. Nor did it seek to refashion the nature or conditions of low-skilled...

  14. Appendix New Hope Program Impacts
    (pp. 122-134)
  15. Afterword
    (pp. 135-140)

    Since the publication ofHigher Ground, we have completed an eightyear follow-up analysis of the New Hope evaluation experiment and launched an initiative to promote a national demonstration of the New Hope program.¹ Both efforts reflect a growing national consensus that work support programs are a critical component of policies to combat poverty.

    First are the long-term effects: eight years after entering New Hope, parents and their children continued to be better off than control group families in many respects, though some of the initial effects of the program had faded. In the book, we report that effects on employment...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 141-154)
  17. References
    (pp. 155-164)
  18. Index
    (pp. 165-172)