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There Must Be Better Ways To Fight Poverty. The White House Wants To Find Them.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration wants to spend $2 billion testing new approaches to fighting poverty, with a particular focus on catching people before they fall into crisis rather than trying to put them back on their feet afterward.

The president’s budget, which will be officially released in early February, calls for creating a new Emergency Aid and Service Connection. The main goal would be to find ways of helping families who face immediate, potentially crippling financial crises — like a car breaking down with no money for repairs or an extended absence from work because of illness.

Instead of waiting for these people to exhaust all resources, certifying their poverty with extensive paperwork and then providing them with assistance through programs like food stamps, the idea would be to assist them with quick short-term aid — before one crisis leads to many others — or connect them with programs that, over the long term, can help stabilize their incomes.

The Emergency Aid and Service Connection would make money available to states and nonprofits interested in trying such approaches — and then evaluate how those programs worked, in hopes of hitting upon a few truly effective methods. “We want to work with state and local communities … that could then customize exactly that kind of response,” Shaun Donovan, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said on Wednesday. “Nobody has a monopoly on the best ideas.”

Donovan made his remarks during an event held at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University and moderated by sociology professor Kathryn Edin. That was no coincidence. A senior administration official told The Huffington Post that a major inspiration for the president’s initiative was the “groundbreaking” research that Edin conducted with H. Luke Shaefer, a social scientist at the University of Michigan. Their 2015 book, Two Dollars a Day, focused on the extremely poor — a group whose ranks have been increasing — and the ways that short-term financial crises can unravel lives.

Most of the extremely poor people they talked to “had been working — and wanted to work — but because of the instability in their jobs and the instability in their family lives, they had lost a job and things had spiraled out of control from there,” Shaefer told HuffPost last fall. 

A mother with kids might move in with other family members after losing a job, Shaefer explained, only to have a relative borrow her car and wreck it or, worse, commit some kind of abuse. “We found a lot of examples where these people had turned to families and friends for help, and it turned out really badly,” Shaefer said.

One reason these Americans are struggling, Edin and Shaefer found, is that the safety net for poor families has become a shadow of its former self. Welfare reform, passed in 1996, has drastically shrunk the percentage of poor families who receive cash benefits. 

The prospects for new anti-poverty spending might seem grim, given that President Barack Obama is in his final year of office and Republicans, who generally oppose new spending, control Congress. But some prominent Republicans, most notably House Speaker Paul Ryan, have spoken frequently and conspicuously about their interest in finding innovative approaches to fighting poverty. A one-time expenditure of $2 billion is not a huge sum in the context of a nearly $4 trillion federal budget, and finding at least some money for testing out promising programs might be possible.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, Obama went out of his way to praise Ryan’s attention to poverty. “America is about giving everybody willing to work a hand up, and I’d welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support,” Obama said.

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