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Higher Ground

New Hope for the Working Poor and Their Children

Greg J. Duncan, Aletha C. Huston, Thomas S. Weisner

Publication Year: 2007

During the 1990s, growing demands to end chronic welfare dependency culminated in the 1996 federal “welfare-to-work” reforms. But regardless of welfare reform, the United States has always been home to a large population of working poor—people who remain poor even when they work and do not receive welfare. In a concentrated effort to address the problems of the working poor, a coalition of community activists and business leaders in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, launched New Hope, an experimental program that boosted employment among the city’s poor while reducing poverty and improving children’s lives. In Higher Ground, Greg Duncan, Aletha Huston, and Thomas Weisner provide a compelling look at how New Hope can serve as a model for national anti-poverty policies. New Hope was a social contract—not a welfare program—in which participants were required to work a minimum of 30 hours a week in order to be eligible for earnings supplements and health and child care subsidies. All participants had access to career counseling and temporary community service jobs. Drawing on evidence from surveys, public records of employment and earnings, in-depth interviews, and ethnographic observation, Higher Ground tells the story of this ambitious three-year social experiment and evaluates how participants fared relative to a control group. The results were highly encouraging. Poverty rates declined among families that participated in the program. Employment and earnings increased among participants who were not initially working full-time, relative to their counterparts in a control group. For those who had faced just one significant barrier to employment (such as a lack of access to child care or a spotty employment history), these gains lasted years after the program ended. Increased income, combined with New Hope’s subsidies for child care and health care, brought marked improvements to the well-being and development of participants’ children. Enrollment in child care centers increased, and fewer medical needs went unmet. Children performed better in school and exhibited fewer behavioral problems, and gains were particularly dramatic for boys, who are at the greatest risk for poor academic performance and behavioral disorders. As America takes stock of the successes and shortcomings of the Clinton-era welfare reforms, the authors convincingly demonstrate why New Hope could be a model for state and national policies to assist the working poor. Evidence based and insightfully written, Higher Ground illuminates how policymakers can make work pay for families struggling to escape poverty.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v

About the Authors

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

Most books are long in the making and this one is no exception. It began for the three of us in 1995 when we were members of the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on Successful Pathways through Middle Childhood. Few foundations have been as willing...

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Chapter 1: Introduction

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pp. 1-14

“If you work, you should not be poor.” This is the implicit social contract in America. Work is a fundamental value in the United States, and hard work should bring rewards. Until recently, it generally did. As the prosperity of the country grew...

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Chapter 2: Creating New Hope

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pp. 15-30

David Riemer’s views on work and welfare, views that were at the core of New Hope, can be traced directly back to the revolutionary policies of Harry Hopkins and Franklin Roosevelt. He explained as follows...

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Chapter 3: Participants

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pp. 31-41

After six years of planning, New Hope began operating in August 1994. Among those selected by the lottery to participate were Lakeisha, Inez, and Elena...

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Chapter 4: The Evaluation

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pp. 42-50

The random-assignment lottery method of selecting participants was critical in measuring New Hope’s impacts. Random assignment involved recruiting twice as many people as the program could afford and then, in effect, flipping a coin to determine...

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Chapter 5: Work and Poverty

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pp. 51-67

She was raised by a mother on welfare and had received welfare herself before applying to New Hope, but Inez does not fit the profile of a hard-to-employ single mother. She graduated from high school on schedule, went to work in a bank...

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Chapter 6: Children

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pp. 68-81

When Inez enrolled in New Hope, her oldest child, Jorge, was not yet two years old. He started life with a number of strikes against him. His mother was an unmarried teenager who conceived him with a man who was dealing drugs...

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Chapter 7: Families

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pp. 82-99

To understand how New Hope affected children and their families, we begin with a snapshot of Lakeisha’s life, showing how family and work played out in her daily routine. Our imagined bus ride is based on Lakeisha’s descriptions...

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Chapter 8: New Hope’s Lessons

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pp. 100-112

In 2004, a full decade after she became eligible for New Hope’s benefits, Lakeisha, at age thirty-three, was still with Kevin, and they had purchased a small, well-kept house in a quiet, safe northside Milwaukee neighborhood. She and Kevin were planning...

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Chapter 9: New Hope and National Policy

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pp. 113-121

Forged by a coalition of community activists and local business leaders, New Hope’s core principles reflect widely held views on what America’s social contract with low-skilled workers should be. It is demanding, requiring people to work full time...

Appendix: New Hope Program Impacts

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pp. 122-133

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pp. 135-140

Since the publication of Higher Ground, we have completed an eight-year follow-up analysis of the New Hope evaluation experiment and launched an initiative to promote a national demonstration of the New Hope...


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pp. 141-154


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pp. 155-164


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pp. 165-172

E-ISBN-13: 9781610441728
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871543257
Print-ISBN-10: 0871543257

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2007