If Poverty Is the Question...
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.