When talking about poverty, policy matters

Jonathan Cohn, in the New Republic, has a fascinating article comparing how states compare regarding anti-poverty programs and its results. On one side, Cohn puts all "blue states" the ones that have voted reliably democrat since 2000. On the other column he has the red states, those than went for Bush and McCain in the past three election cycles. The results are not surprising, but still worth looking at:

No surprise here: blue states offer better coverage on all their anti-poverty programs, offering a more generous safety nets than red states. Some Federal programs have fairly strict guidelines (SNAP, S-CHIP), so the difference is fairly minor in those cases. In others, like unemployment insurance, coverage is up to 50% more generous (unemployment).

So far, so good - democrats spend much more. The important question, however, is how big a program is, but how well does it work for poverty reduction. Luckily, Cohn also has some interesting numbers there:

By nearly every measure, people who live in the blue states are healthier, wealthier, and generally better off than people in the red states. It’s impossible to prove that this is the direct result of government spending. But the correlation is hard to dismiss. The four states with the highest poverty rates are all red: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas. (The fifth is New Mexico, which has turned blue.) And the five states with the lowest poverty rates are all blue: New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, Minnesota, and Hawaii. The numbers on infant mortality, life expectancy, teen pregnancy, and obesity break down in similar ways. A recent study by researchers at the American Institute for Physics evaluated how well-prepared high schoolers were for careers in math and science. Massachusetts was best, followed closely by Minnesota and New Jersey. Mississippi was worst, along with Louisiana and West Virginia. In fact, it is difficult to find any indicator of well-being in which red states consistently do better than blue states.

Mr. Cohn is wrong about one specific point: we do know that government spending can and does reduce poverty when done right.  Ezra Klein points out that looking at total spending, blue and red states are not that far off. Blue state benefits, however, are far more generous than red state ones. As a result, they are also more effective reducing poverty, and in turn probably reducing the total cost in the medium term. A less generous, cheaper welfare state is much less effective moving people out of poverty, so it really never comes down.

Maybe the best way to reduce dependency on government is by making government work well.

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