Students line up for lunch in Waterbury, Vermont. (AP/Toby Talbot)
This past year I’ve had the opportunity to cover the anti-poverty movement—and I do believe it’s a movement—it’s just a little too much of a well-kept secret right now.
But I think in 2013, the people and groups at the forefront of anti-poverty thinking and action are poised to reach a much wider audience, and gain far greater popular support.
That’s in part because the movement is led by organizations and individuals who have been fighting poverty for decades, and they offer solutions that are grounded in empirical data and the everyday experiences of millions of working Americans and families.
In contrast, the opposition to anti-poverty reform relies largely on tired stereotypes, myths and prejudices—that low-income people are lazy and don’t want to work; that they only want handouts, or to live off of welfare; that anti-poverty policies have failed; and, most recently, that we can’t afford these investments.
But an economy that is short on opportunity and concentrates wealth in the hands of a few is coming into focus. The interests of low-income people and a shrinking middle class are converging—everyone wants fair pay, a shot at a good education and an economy defined by opportunity and upward mobility.
People are beginning to recognize that we have a proliferation of low-wage work—over 25 percent of the jobs in the nation pay less than the poverty line for a family of four, and 50 percent pay less than $34,000 a year. It’s no wonder that 28 percent of all workers last year earned wages below the poverty line, and that more than 70 percent of low-income families and half of all families in poverty were working in 2011. (Low-income defined as living on less than 200 percent of the poverty line, or less than approximately $36,000 annually for a family of three—which now constitutes 106 million people, more than one in three Americans; poverty defined as living on less than $18,000 annually for a family of three, which now describes more than 46 million Americans.) People are looking for answers.
Currently, the anti-poverty movement is largely in sync as it tries to protect programs that are vital to basic human needs during the fiscal debate. But I think there are things it can do in 2013—after the budget debate—to reach a wider audience and bring more people into its fold.