After 20 years of struggling to lift Americans out of poverty, it sometimes seems no progress has been made. As many people are poor now as were then. Yet the United States now knows a great deal more about poverty. This information can serve as building blocks for efforts to alleviate the problem.
``We've learned a lot in 20 years,'' says Alice Rivlin, an economist with the Brookings Institution and a member of a major study group examining welfare reform. For one thing, she says, there's ``a lot more understanding'' of what the problems of poverty are and that poverty ``won't go away by itself.''
``We've had some success'' in ending poverty among specific groups, she says, especially among older Americans (``and some very great nonsuccesses as well,'' she adds). In 1959 more than one in every three elderly Americans was poor; today only one in eight is.
The prime reason for the change is government action: increases in social security benefits and the start of medicare, the federally financed medical care program for the aged.
Twenty years ago efforts to help the poor were often unfocused. That has changed. By everyone's agreement single mothers and their children most require aid, and efforts to reform welfare and help the poor are clearly targeted at helping them.
Nowadays ``there's a lot less naivet'e'' about problems and prospective solutions, Rivlin points out. During the 1960s, both liberals and conservatives often took doctrinaire positions, frequently advocating simple solutions, which proved unrealistic. Both groups now realize that the problems of the poor are much more complex and require consistent, long-range help.
Both liberals and conservatives, she notes, are talking about ``realistic job programs'' for teen parents, about job training, about helping mothers with young children to be better parents, and about preventing teen pregnancy. These ideas had little political support as recently as half a dozen years ago.
Michael Novak agrees with her overall assessment of progress. ``A lot has been learned'' in two decades, he says. He is the Jewett Scholar at American Enterprise, and chairman of the welfare reform task force of which Rivlin is a member.
American society has learned, he says, that to end poverty and get people off welfare, ``economic growth alone isn't enough ... opening up opportunity to everybody isn't enough.''
Americans have learned, says Lawrence Mead, an assistant professor of politics at New York University and another task force member, that workfare - requiring people on welfare to work - is ``one of the answers,'' but not the sole solution, to welfare problems. Various studies make clear, he says, that welfare recipients ``will go to work if they are expected to go to work.''
Studies indicate, he says, that workfare's ``most important impact'' is that it can raise the percentage of welfare recipients who are working ``to well over half,'' and move them away from dependency on government handouts. At present only a third of welfare mothers have jobs during the course of a year, Professor Mead says, and only about 15 percent at any one time.
But he stresses that workfare should not be oversold: ``It's not going to reduce the welfare rolls in a radical measure,'' nor will it substantially reduce welfare costs. But it will help a significant number of recipients, who generally favor it, to become self-sufficient.
Only a few years ago many critics thought a teen-age, single mother should find employment as quickly as possible; other critics wanted her to stay home full-time with her children. Today broad agreement exists that a teen mother should follow a third route. In Mead's words: ``I would prefer that she stay in school ... that's the most constructive thing she can do - stay in school and graduate.''
Over the past two decades people working with the poor, including welfare recipients, have learned what two other important programs - Head Start and Chapter I - can and cannot do.
Head Start was intended to provide a social and educational head start to children deprived in both areas. Chapter I, originally called Title I, provides special educational help to school-age children who lag behind their peers; it primarily serves elementary school youngsters.
Twenty years ago backers of both programs thought that providing deprived children with an early social and educational boost would automatically translate into better educational performances throughout their school years and beyond, and would be the panacea that would largely cancel out years of family, social, and educational deprivation.
That has not occurred, Terry Hartle, a resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute, and other specialists say. ``Neither program can clearly demonstrate long-term gains,'' he says. In part, that is because most studies have not kept track of graduates of these programs for a sufficient number of years.
Some evidence exists, too, that if children are returned to inadequate schools they then lose virtually all the benefits of these programs, at least as measured by education tests.
Studies do show, however, that both programs yield short-term gains. And a 20-year study of a private preschool program provides ``some evidence,'' Mr. Hartle says, that good programs for very young children can help them over the long haul.
Dealing with the problems of poor and very young children, then, has proved to be much like working with their parents: American society has learned no quick panaceas exist. But it has also discovered that progress can be made.
Dealing with the broader questions of poverty and welfare reform, in a sense, parallels what Dr. Rivlin says about working to prevent a new round of poverty among the elderly 30 years from now, when they will comprise a much larger percentage of Americans: ``That problem is solvable,'' she says. ``We just have to start working on it'' now.