Over the years, there has been a strong divide between conservatives and liberals on the origins of poverty and how to deal with it.  Republican Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis Ryan Retirees should say 'no thanks' to Romney's Social Security plan California Governor Newsom and family dress as 2020 Democrats for Halloween DC's liaison to rock 'n' roll MORE (Wis.) has recently held several hearings and just released a book proposing ways of addressing our persistent poverty.  Though there has been warming to a few of his ideas by some liberals, most of their commentary has not been supportive.

We suggest herein one method of addressing the problem that is likely to elicit agreement among most of those concerned about this issue, regardless of their political stance.  Namely, we propose the implementation of evidence-based programs and policies that have been repeatedly shown to ameliorate the negative outcomes of poverty, even if they do not immediately address the causal factorsor focus directly on economic incentives.  Importantly, though, there is an added advantage of such programs in that the skills and resiliency they instill make it less likely that future generations of those in poverty will suffer the same fate and continue to inflate the costs. 

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The value of an evidence-based prevention science approach is that it invests only in proven programs, so precious resources are not wasted and problems are prevented before they develop. This scenario is certainly preferable for all involved, from those directly impacted by poverty to those affected by the exorbitant costs of poverty, such as threats to public safety and the need for more specialized educational and mental health services.  Along these lines, Ryan has suggested a Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making which would serve to test the effectiveness of programs designed to address poverty and evaluate anti-poverty programs over the long term.  Such a non-partisan, scientific body would further promote a needed bi-partisan approach to reducing poverty and its consequences.  On the Democratic side, Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), a co-chair of the Congressional Out of Poverty Caucus, fully supports an evidence-based prevention approach as an important component of an anti-poverty strategy.  Over time, proven interventions save government money; e.g., there is no longer a need to institute programs to counteract problems that no longer exist.  Plus, those no longer in poverty are more productive, leading to more money in government coffers.  All can support the type of benefits espoused herein.

There is a solid body of evidence showing that community, family and school-based interventions can prevent the development of most of the problems cited above and thereby minimize the harm of poverty and assist many children in eventually escaping from it. The Institute of Medicine’s 2009 report on prevention expounded on this evidence.  From the prenatal period through adolescence, there are programs that can help families nurture their children’s cognitive, social, and physical development. They teach parents how to reduce conflict in the home and how best their children learn.  Such programs can serve to prevent impoverished children from failing in school and from developing aggressive behavior that leads to delinquency, substance abuse, and early pregnancy.  Some such programs have been implemented in some local areas, but what is needed is wide-scale and faithful implementation.

A compelling recent analysis by Sawhill and Karpilow at the Brookings Institution found that if proven interventions were given at critical points from early years through adolescence, it would close the gap by 70 percent between more and less advantaged children in their ability to enter the middle class by mid-life. And in doing so, this approach would result in substantial savings to the taxpayer.  If these programs can be successfully “scaled up,” there is potential for transformative effects on poverty. One possible bipartisan means of large-scale implementation is via “social impact”/”pay-for success” bonds, which draw in private money to help implement programs. This mechanism is growing in popularity across the aisle in various states, and now in bills introduced into Congress.

The National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives (NPSC) stands by a scientifically sound strategy to advance a national mentality and governmental policies that prioritize the prevention of problems before they occur.  The goal is to reduce government expenditures, while supporting conditions under which children, adolescents, families and communities can thrive.  Perhaps now that time for intelligent, bipartisan discourse and action has come.

Fishbein, Ph.D. is professor and director of C-TRANS, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and director of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives.  Wollman; Ph. D. is  senior fellow, Bentley Service-Learning Center; Bentley University; Waltham, Mass.; NWollman@Bentley.edu; co-director; National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives. Biglan, Ph.D. is senior scientist, Oregon Research Institute.