This week, at a forum on poverty and the 2012 election, Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin said 88 percent of voters view a candidate’s position on equal opportunity for children of all races as important in deciding their vote for president. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson commented that it was “most encouraging” that “Americans of every ideological background believe in opportunity for children. It’s a common ground commitment.”
I wish I shared his confidence. I think if that commitment were truly a strong one, we would be doing much more to help the 22 percent of American children and their families—disproportionately people of color—get out of poverty.
Yet too many politicians and citizens still seize on President Reagan’s old line—“We fought a war against poverty, and poverty won”—as a reason not to make substantial investments in children and families. The data, however, suggest that this take on anti-poverty legislation is a myth.
From 1964 to 1973 we reduced poverty by 43 percent. More recently, six initiatives in the Recovery Act kept nearly 7 million Americans from falling into poverty. Saying we failed simply because there is still poverty is like saying clean air and clean water laws failed because there is still pollution.
The truth is, we do know many of the things that need to be done to reduce poverty, and our failure to act means we are choosing to accept a brutal status quo. Here’s a look back at how we could have reduced poverty by 25 percent if we had possessed the will. These programs and others still offer us opportunities to prove our commitment to children and their families today.
Task Force on Poverty
In 2007, a Center for American Progress Task Force on Poverty that included Peter Edelman, Angela Glover Blackwell and others, released a report with twelve recommendations on how to cut poverty in half over ten years. The Urban Institute used widely respected modeling to study just four of the recommendations—raising the minimum wage, strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit, expanding the Child Tax Credit and improving child care assistance—and found that together they would reduce poverty by 26 percent. While the numbers may have changed, it’s still true that improving public policy in these four areas would have a major impact on poverty.
The Minimum Wage
The Task Force on Poverty recommended raising the minimum wage to half the average hourly wage—the historic marker for the minimum wage—and indexing it to inflation. In 2007, that would have meant raising it to $8.40, and it would have reduced poverty by 1.7 million people.