If Poverty Is the Question...
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?