Stanford professor offers plan to solve American poverty at Dodd Center


Stanford professor David Grusky speaks during his lecture, “A Blueprint for Ending Poverty…Permanently,” at the Dodd Center’s Konover Auditorium on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (Sam Mahmud/The Daily Campus)

Poverty has long infected the United States and its society, but few have made the bold claim of having the solution. Stanford professor David Grusky is one of those few, and explained his ideas in his presentation, “A Blueprint for Ending Poverty…Permanently,” at the Dodd Center’s Konover Auditorium Thursday.

Grusky began his presentation by refuting several arguments that suggest poverty isn’t a real issue in the United States and that it’s not a problem that the government should address.

“I’m going to talk about how we might go about ending poverty. Before I get to that task, I want to take on some reasons why some may think that we need not do anything about poverty,” Grusky said. “’Is there indeed real poverty in the US?’ The case…is quite compelling… We look more like Poland or Argentina than our peer well-off countries.”

Grusky warned that the United States is at a crossroads, and that the country must start taking more meaningful steps to address poverty, or else face dire consequences.

“If we mess up, it could be a long time before we get another chance,” Grusky said. “The first war on poverty, fought some half-century ago, is often pronounced as a failure…We cannot have another major effort to reduce failure be considered a failure. We have got to get it right.”

From there, Grusky proceeded to lay out what he called an “upstream” approach to solving poverty.

“The poor are doubly disadvantaged. It’s not just that they have less money than other folks, but increasingly you need money to get good and services and opportunities for your children,” Grusky said.

The issue, Grusky argued, is how to make access to goods and services more equal in the face of extreme inequality, most notably for impoverished people. He offered two options: give them money or directly provide them with services and opportunities.

“We could directly provide opportunities, reverse this commodification process,” Grusky said. “The downside (of increasing cash transfers) is potentially fragile. In the UK, that program worked…but how long did it last? Only until the labor party was out of power, because cash transfers aren’t viewed as legitimate.”

The better option, Grusky argued, is to provide more opportunities to the poverty-stricken.

“What we do with the second option is identify junctures where money buys opportunity, and then provides those opportunities to the poor,” Grusky said. “The market’s great for distributing lots of things, but one thing it’s not great at is distributing opportunities for children. The economy runs best when everyone has equal access to opportunities.”

“The obvious effect is those who get education, and otherwise wouldn’t, are at much lower risk of poverty…It’s also great for those who don’t get the college degree,” Grusky continued. “Now we have this huge army of people without a college degree, and wages are driven down because there’s so much competition. What if we shift a big chunk of those folks into the college sector? Now (those without a college degree) have less competition, their wages won’t be driven down and unemployment.”

To do that the government must invest in children early on, wherever important decisions are being made about children’s education, Grusky said.

“The goal is to outfox the rich. The rich can spend a lot of money on the children and don’t have to worry about a high payout because they have so much money,” Grusky said. “When you’re dealing with taxpayer dollars…we have to be sure that when we have an intervention, it’s been demonstrated to have a payoff.”

Some of the junctures Grusky listed included teaching parents about available health and safety nets for their children; implementing equal access to early childhood education; and providing more information about networking and opportunities.

“Early childhood education is wasted if those opportunities are exploited,” Grusky said, explaining why the government must support opportunities for children throughout their education.

However, Grusky’s plan does not exist in a vacuum, as he has passed his plan onto local political groups in California, and the voters will decide whether to implement Grusky’s plan when they go to the polls in November. The plan, Grusky argues, can succeed because it is politically viable and is the appropriate size for dealing with the issue of poverty in California.

“Throughout this process, focus groups were set up in California to see what kind of plans Californians would vote for… It was important to make sure that this was a plan that Californians could accept,” Grusky said. “This will bring about a substantial reduction in poverty…you can’t expect to deliver big results with small programs, but this is the right scale.”

Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at

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