Toward a Policy of Prosperity

Colleen Heflin Believes the Poor Need Not Always Be With Us

By Charles E. Reineke

According to the Old Testament proverb, "The poor is hated even by his own neighbor, while the rich hath many friends." So it was then, and so it is today. The wealthy are admired and emulated. The poor are failed citizens, individuals whose bad decisions and lack of initiative have rightfully consigned them to society's slag heap. Best to keep them out of sight, out of mind.

Thankfully, most Americans would take exception to this harsh view. But only just, says welfare and public policy expert Colleen Heflin. "I don't know that the poor are invisible; it's more that the middle class has cordoned off its connection to them," Heflin says. "The poor are 'other people in other circumstances who have made other choices.' There is not a sense that we're all just one bankruptcy, one medical crisis, one divorce away from poverty."

For the record, Heflin, an assistant professor in MU's Truman School of Public Policy, has never been poor. Her father, a postal worker, and her mother, a homemaker, provided the family with a comfortable, if modest, middle-class existence. Her parents, however, never bought into the "us and them" attitude toward the needy. Those less fortunate, they taught, were deserving of sympathy and support.

The lesson stuck. Only five years removed from having received her doctorate at the University of Michigan, Heflin is today building a body of research that may make us all reconsider what we think we know about poverty.

During a conversation in Heflin's Middlebush Hall office, the 37-year-old wife and mother of two daughters sets the scene by describing how the stratification of individuals in America typically stacks up along income, race and gender lines. At the top, a new Gilded Age. At bottom -- a social stratum increasingly composed of women and children in single-parent households -- an underappreciated struggle to obtain adequate food, housing, education and health care.

"If we understood the extent to which individuals in our prosperous country are not having their basic needs met, I think there might be more political support for programs to meet these needs," says Heflin, quickly adding that meeting basic needs isn't just about altruism. Better social welfare policies can ensure we're all more prosperous, she says.

As an example, Heflin cites her recent investigation, conducted with colleagues from Michigan's School of Social Work, that determined food insufficiency correlated highly with mental health problems. "On average, about 11 percent of our population meet the definition of being 'food insecure,'" Heflin says. "We found there are consequences to this, not just in terms physical health, but especially in terms of mental health. Mental health has gotten a lot of attention lately in discussions of declines of productivity in the workplace. We don't often think that improving this situation might involve giving people enough food to eat."

Another study, this one undertaken with Michigan's renowned poverty expert Sheldon Danziger, detailed the surprisingly positive effects of Clinton-era "welfare-to-work" reforms. "The paper's title was, 'Does it Pay to Move from Welfare to Work?' The answer was, 'Yes, it does.'" Heflin says. "This was, politically, a very unpopular answer to this question, at least in academic circles. And it wasn't one that I thought we'd reach."

The consternation arose because an earlier welfare-to-work study had, under different economic and policy conditions, reached exactly the opposite conclusion. Concerned about the disconnect, Heflin and Danziger crunched the data using a variety of different measures. "Each yielded the same consistent answer: women who moved from welfare to work did in fact, on average, tend to be better off according to both objective and subjective financial measures," she says. "I thought it was great fun to be so wrong."

Admitting a wrong to get things right is not, of course, a virtue one typically associates with public policy professionals. But Heflin is determined to go where the data leads her. Next up? Developing poverty measures that move beyond the overly simplistic income threshold tests used by the federal government.

"My current research agenda is influenced by the sense that the current poverty measure is broken, and that we really need to focus on the idea of 'material hardship,' the causes of it and its consequences," Heflin says.

"Economists tend to focus solely on dollar signs. I'm looking beyond that, at how we can expand the set of outcomes we care about. The public doesn't care so much about raising everyone's income to a certain level. But putting food on everyone's table is something we can all get behind."