What does it mean to be poor in America? We can offer no single description of American poverty. But for many, perhaps most, it means homes with peeling paint, inadequate heating, uncertain plumbing. It means that only the very lucky among the children receive a decent education. It often means a home where some go to bed hungry and malnutrition is a frequent visitor. It means that the most elementary components of the good life in America–a vacation with kids, an evening out, a comfortable home–are but distant and unreachable dreams, more likely to be seen on the television screen than in the neighborhood. And for almost all the poor it means that life is a constant struggle to obtain the merest necessities of existence, those things most of us take for granted. We can do better.

More than 35 million Americans–one out of every seven of our fellow citizens–are officially poor. More than one in five American children are poor. And the poor are getting poorer. In 1994, nearly half of poor children under the age of 6 lived in families with incomes below half the poverty line. That figure has doubled over the past twenty years. The number of people who work full time and are still poor has risen dramatically as well. In 1975, 6 percent of young children who lived in families with one full-time worker were poor. By 1994, that figure had gone up to 15 percent.

Poor people are increasingly hemmed into poor neighborhoods, with everything that entails: poor schools, crime, violence, lack of accessible jobs and all the rest. The number of people living in concentrations of poverty (in neighborhoods of more than 40 percent poverty) went up by 75 percent from 1970 to 1980 and then doubled between 1980 and 1990. More than 10 million Americans (that constitutes about 4 million poor families) now live in very-high-poverty neighborhoods.

Minorities are poorer than the rest of Americans: 29.3 percent of African-Americans and 30.3 percent of Hispanics were classified as poor in 1995. Female-headed households are even poorer–44.6 percent of the children who lived in such families were poor in 1994, and almost half of all children who are poor live in female-headed households.

It’s an old saw that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. For nearly two decades that cliché has been a painfully demonstrable fact. Nearly all of America’s economic growth has benefited the wealthiest among us, and the tiny slice of the pie allotted to the poor has actually gotten smaller. From 1977 to 1992 the richest 1 percent of Americans gained 91 percent in after-tax income, while the poorest fifth lost 17 percent of their income. The top 1 percent’s total income equals that of the entire bottom 40 percent of the population.

I will be the first to say that adults in our society need to take responsibility for themselves if they possibly can. But until we come to a real understanding of the structural problems in our economy and society that are getting in our way, we will continue to legislate by bumper stickers and slogans. We need to have an honest national conversation, and an honest conversation in every community, about what is really going on, why we face the unacceptable level of poverty and near-poverty, and what we are going to do about it.

We must not let the current debate over welfare or the role of government be used to mask the grim realities of poverty. Most poor people are not poor by choice. Most would prefer to work for a decent wage. Nor can we offer a justification for the children who are born into a poverty that they did not choose or deserve, and whose conditions prevent them from gaining the skills and ambitions that would allow them to escape.

I am going to do everything I possibly can to start the national conversation. I am going to travel the length and breadth of this country, as Robert Kennedy did thirty years ago, and as Eleanor Roosevelt did during the Depression, to observe the face of poverty in the streets, villages and neighborhoods of those in distress. I want to dramatize their plight, to reveal for many of our fellow citizens the face of poverty as it exists at the end of the millennium.

Poverty has many faces. There are the elderly, now less poor than the rest of America because of the success of Social Security and Medicare and Supplemental Security Income, as well as our private pension system. But women and minorities among the elderly are disproportionately poor. Our challenge for the elderly is to find the right way to protect Social Security and preserve Medicare. There are the disabled, protected by the historic Americans With Disabilities Act but experiencing a backlash in recent benefit cuts. But even for those who can work, there is still very high unemployment. There are dislocated workers forced out of jobs by downsizing and plant relocation. There are women and children made poor by divorce or abandonment. There are rural poor who live far from available work, and farmers who work as hard as anyone but still can’t make ends meet.

I will visit all of these and help to tell their stories. Their problems are real and pressing, and we are not doing enough about them. But there are four groups–four overlapping groups–that tend to set off the bumper-sticker talk and the political hot buttons and the simple-minded solutions. (H.L. Mencken once said, “For every problem there is a solution that is neat and simple–and wrong.”) These groups are the working poor, welfare recipients, the inner-city and rural poor, and poor children and youths.

If there is any group of “deserving poor” in the United States–although that is a term I greatly dislike–it is the working poor. We have raised the earned-income tax credit substantially. We have now raised the minimum wage a little. But both are still too low, and we look the other way when it is pointed out that the lousy jobs that too many Americans have don’t provide health coverage. We do a little shuffle when the real cost of child care is mentioned–a small calculation on the back of an envelope would reveal that the parents with the lousy jobs can’t afford the child care, especially if they are single parents with one lousy job.

And now we are about to flood the labor market with a new supply of low-wage workers, pushed out there by the bumper-sticker command of our new welfare law to find a job, any job. The vast majority of them are women, who still earn less than men, and minority women at that, who earn less than white women, so these new workers are especially likely to end up in low-wage jobs. And elementary labor economics says they are–if anything–going to depress wages further for everyone at the low-wage end of the labor market.

Simply put, there are not enough jobs available that are geographically accessible and sufficiently undemanding of technical skills for all the long-term welfare recipients who have now been told to enter the job market or else. In real life, people of color will encounter discrimination when they try to find a job. But for a huge proportion of those who do find work, there will be a different, serious issue–how do I make ends meet? To add to the problem, in the same welfare bill there are large food-stamp cuts that by 2002 will reduce benefits by 20 percent for everyone, including the millions of working poor who get a little help from food stamps in their constant struggle to keep things together.

The answer is not ending welfare as we know it. The answer is dealing honestly with the real causes of poverty. We have to do this by genuinely making work pay, including providing access to health care and child care to go along with it. But we have to do it in two other fundamental ways as well: by committing ourselves to a genuine, positive, realistic developmental and educational strategy for children and young people so that they reach adulthood with the tools and attitudes they need to be responsible, self-sufficient adult citizens; and by reclaiming our neighborhoods of endemic poverty and helping parents and other decent people there to create a safe and healthy environment in which to raise children and bring them along the road to responsible adulthood.

We need to pay particular attention to young men. The welfare law primarily focuses on women, although not exactly in a positive way. It focuses on men in its tough new provisions on child support. But we need to be promoting responsible fatherhood, and that means marriage and involvement with the children and two earners in the family. One reason marriages do not form is lack of opportunity. Communities need to work on strategies to help young women and young men both to make it successfully into the job market. We have had a strategy for young men, but it is the wrong strategy: It is called prison, and it is eating its way through higher education budgets and school budgets across America. We will stop feeding the correctional appetite only if we stop supplying new customers.

But if too many parents find it terribly hard to meet all their responsibilities, and too many young people are falling by the wayside, communities cannot do the job of helping all by themselves. We need government, and we need the federal government now.

There are some steps we can take as a nation–right now–that would make an enormous difference in the lives of children. It is a scandal that 10 million children in America do not have basic health care to help them reach their full potential. It is a scandal that despite irrefutable and irreducible evidence that the Women, Infants and Children program is successful at giving women and children a healthy and nutritious diet, we have yet to fund it fully. We know WIC works, but currently it reaches only 74 percent of the eligible population. We can and must do better. It is a scandal that while we know that Head Start is effective in helping children from diverse backgrounds and circumstances to prepare for school, we have yet to fund it fully. Currently only 30 percent of children eligible for Head Start are enrolled!

There are hundreds and thousands of marvelous initiatives occurring in so many ways all over this nation that are making a major difference in the lives of poor people. We do not lack ideas. We do not lack knowledge. We do not lack committed people. But we lack a national commitment. We lack a genuine national debate about the underlying questions–the way our economy is structured and the very real issues of race and gender that are so deeply infused in so much of what goes on.

Without such a debate, without enlisting the energies of our fellow citizens, these problems will never be resolved. I have spent enough time in Washington and read enough history to know they will not be solved from the top. It was a combination of the civil rights movement and the activist movements of the sixties that generated our last truly national attack on the problems of poverty. That effort expired in the conflagration of Vietnam. But the successes of civil rights activists and the women’s movement were a clear demonstration of the truism that in a democracy significant social change comes from the bottom up, from an aroused opinion that forces our ruling institutions to do the right thing.

I think we can do bettah. That is what Robert Kennedy always said. I think we can do better too. Won’t you join me in the effort?