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This Week in Poverty: Citizen Obama and the Anti-Poverty/Pro-Prosperity People | The Nation

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Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

This Week in Poverty: Citizen Obama and the Anti-Poverty/Pro-Prosperity People


President Obama’s swearing-in. (AP Photo)

“So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens—you were the change…. Only you have the power to move us forward.”
      —President Obama, Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speech, 9/6/12

“You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast, but the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideas.”
      —President Obama, inaugural address, 1/21/13

On Monday, in his second inaugural address, President Obama offered words that inspired hope among some advocates who work every day on economic security issues—whether creating opportunities for families struggling in poverty, or creating better jobs for all workers.

There was hope in Obama saying that “we are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

Hope in the idea that “the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink of hardship,” and that “our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”

Hope in the notion that we will “empower our citizens with the skills they need to work hard or learn more, reach higher.”

Hope in the reaffirmation that “we, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.”

Hope in touting “the commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security.”

Hope in his emphasizing—as he did in his 2012 Democratic convention speech—the common ground between his work as president and ours as citizens: “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time.”

Which is exactly what so many in the anti-poverty movement have been striving to do for decades now.

Nation executive editor Betsy Reed aptly notes in her post the “chasm” between the America that Obama envisioned in his address, and the real lives of low-income people today: “Given the chasm that now separates rich from poor, improving conditions in schools or preserving Medicaid and other existing social programs is not going to give a hard-knocks Bronx kid the chance to compete with his Park Avenue counterpart on a level playing field.” She argues that those born in poverty will never have an equal shot at success, and that to suggest otherwise is both intellectually dishonest and harmful, as it makes it seem as though someone only becomes stuck in poverty due to his own failings.

But those who would blame the poor for being poor will always do so, no matter the circumstances. In my opinion, Obama is right to lay out the ideal we should be striving for—whether we reach it in a generation, or two, or never—and he is especially right that it is up to citizens to move this nation where we want to go.

Protecting and improving existing programs will not fully achieve the kind of equality and equal opportunity that the president described. But promoting policies that reflect a commitment to ending hunger, raising wages and labor standards, pursuing full employment, making college affordable, creating alternative career pathways, implementing progressive tax reform, building affordable housing and more will surely move us in the right direction, even if progress comes in fits and starts.

Obama’s vision and impassioned plea for citizen action clearly had an effect on Ai-jen Poo, co-director of Caring Across Generations, who wrote in an e-mail following the address: “Hearing these words made me hopeful about the next four years. He’s been hearing us.… This year we will have to turn these words into real change. It will depend on us, speaking up, taking action, and putting it all on the table.” And Joel Berg, executive director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said: “In precise, elegant terms, the president reminded us why we are all in this together and why expanding economic opportunity is both a moral imperative and an economic necessity…. While we hope, Mr. President, that you will forcefully lead on the vital issues of hunger, poverty, and inequality, advocates understand that it is also our job to build the public support to enable you get the job done.”

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President Obama declared that “we are made for this moment and we will seize it.” I will suggest again that the anti-poverty movement is made for this moment too. Its leaders and groups have done the work required—pick your topic, and you will find numerous studies and evidence on what works, what it costs and what the economic benefits are.

The question now is this: after the anti-poverty/pro-economic security crowd is done defending what needs to be defended in these budget debates—and it is doing an extraordinary job unifying in that regard, including through the Save For All campaign, which over 1,900 organizations are participating in—what will it do to go on the offensive? To offer a powerful, unfied vision for a more equitable economy? What will it do to change the current conversation in city halls, statehouses, Congress and the White House? In neighborhoods and workplaces? At kitchen tables and conference tables? What will be its Stonewall, its Seneca Falls, its Selma?

In my opinion, the anti-poverty movement will need to be as creative, visible, and gripping—in its own way—as the Occupy Wall Street movement was in 2011. The change needed—the kind of change Obama spoke to—won’t happen through hushed conversations in quiet rooms, and it won’t happen if it’s disconnected from the voices of a working and middle class.

I don’t have the answers, but I know that the leaders and groups in this movement—whether at the national level or the grassroots—can come up with them. What will they now do to respond collectively to Americans who are yearning for the land of equal opportunity that Obama described?

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Notable Study

Research Shows How Program Reduced Gun Violence in Crown Heights, Brooklyn,” Center for Court Innovation. New research from the Center for Court Intervention suggests that the anti-violence project, Save Our Streets, is having a profound impact on gun violence in Crown Heights. From early 2010 through 2011, average monthly shooting rates there decreased by 6 percent, while it increased by 18 to 28 percent in surrounding areas. The research suggests that gun violence in Crown Heights was 20 percent lower than what it would have been without the Save Our Streets project.

Save Our Streets takes a public health approach to gun violence, treating outbreaks of violence as epidemics of disease. “Violence Interrupters”—individuals who know the streets and understand the consequences of violence from personal experience—work to break the cycle of violence and retaliation by interrupting volatile situations before people get hurt. They are trained in special mediation techniques, and provide on-the-scene mediation to resolve conflicts before they spin out of control. Researchers also found that the work of Save Our Streets is well known in the community.

“Violence interrupters are the foot soldiers making the neighborhood safer,” said Willard Hawkins, a community activist who lost someone close to him to gun violence, “I thank them every day.”

Honda Re-Introduces Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Act, Receives Lifetime Award for Progressive Leadership

Representative Michael Honda (D-CA) introduced the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Act to provide needed assistance to the national network of community VITA sites, which serve as reliable, no-cost tax preparation services for America’s workers. This program helps ensure that low-income individuals take advantage of existing ladders of opportunity, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the Child Tax Credit (CTC), and the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) that helps make college more affordable.

“Particularly in times of economic hardship, stretched budgets, and divided government,” said Honda, “we need to ensure that the anti-poverty programs already in existence are operating to the best of their ability. Tax credits that promote work, send kids to college, and are proven ladders of opportunity are going underused. The VITA program helps millions of working families take advantage of programs Congress designed to help them, and I’m proud to fight to protect this critical assistance.”

The bill authorizes $30 million in matching grants to eligible Community VITA programs to be used for program operation, taxpayer outreach and related financial services. You can find the VITA centers operating in your district by visiting http://irs.treasury.gov/freetaxprep/.

Mazel tov, too, to Representative Honda on receiving the CPC Lifetime Award for Progressive Leadership last night. Not only is this a man progressives can count on to consistently be in their corner, but he can back up those policy positions with sound fiscal thinking, as he demonstrated as lead author of the People’s Budget.

Reader comments on “An Anti-poverty Contract for 2013?

“People who are poor need something more to hang on to than a vision of what we don’t want”

Greg,

On the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, I read your piece in which you called for a national contract to address poverty in America. Later that evening, my family and I watched an old documentary about King. My sons, now 8- and 10-years old, who have learned about King and the great movement that he and Ralph Abernathy and the other great leaders of that time built, had never seen footage of King’s speeches, the bus boycotts or of police violence against Americans.

Watching the video, my 10-year old, a large bundle of a boy who is both tough and sensitive, cried to see the state police treat Americans so cruelly. My 8-year old, who had just spent the day with his good friend Richard, exclaimed after watching the entirety of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, “Martin Luther had a dream about me and Richard!” Then I recalled my favorite King quote, “You cannot drive out darkness with darkness, only light can do that.”

I thought a lot that night about the interviews with civil rights leaders and the clips in the video that emphasized that the key to King’s powerful message was that he was able to hold steady to his dream of a better America, which at the time seemed impossible to harness, but without being seen as a dreamer. Though he frequently pointed out what was wrong with the sociopolitical status of our nation, he was most powerful when he showed us what America could and should be. I harkened back on the nearly fifteen years of anti-poverty work I have participated in and, at times, led and realized how much time had been spent organizing against policies that have resulted in increased poverty and inequality. All the energy spent there was time not spent on conjuring and fighting for the America we do want. Not only have we been unsuccessful with that strategy, this kind of advocacy is unsustainable and disempowering to the communities of people who are poor and need something more to hang on to than a vision of what we don’t want.

All of this is to say that I agree. The anti-poverty community does need a contract, a pact, a plan to address poverty, but more than that, to remind America that we are a country of principles and that we are in this together. I honestly believe that our leaders—whether Republican, Democrat, Independent or a member of another party—commit their lives to public service because they believe in the principles of America, including her great promise for equality of opportunity. If we start there, we can make America a place where everyone has the same chance at a life free from the indignities and human injuries caused by poverty and deep inequality.  

I am committed to work with others in our anti-poverty community and, more importantly, outside of it, to draft and mobilize around that vision and hope others who read your column can join too.

JESSICA BARTHOLOW
Legislative Advocate
Western Center on Law and Poverty

“It’s essential for us to own a short list of big policies”

Greg,

This is a terrific post. You made two big points that I think are especially right on: (1) “many [in the economic justice community] seem to focus on the lack of will in our political leadership to fight poverty; instead the primary focus might be on what the movement itself is doing to create political will”; and (2) we need to coalesce around a simple, clear and concise anti-poverty agenda, one that includes four or five key policies that are easily grasped and in sync with most people’s values, and forge new alliances around them.

Related to your first point, I think we need to take a more critical look at the problematic ways in which much of the elite media frames poverty. I think the biggest issue here is The New York Times. The Times has published a number of high-profile pieces on poverty over the last year. But in nearly all of these pieces what I’ve called the “disorganized single-parent meme” has figured prominently. The Times desperately needs new voices (and some diversity) on its poverty beat.  

On your second point, my short list of four or five policies will probably look a bit different, a topic I hope to write about myself soon. But I agree it’s essential for us to own a short list of big policies on the progressive wing of the possible that we’re constantly lifting up in public debate. In developing this kind of list, a point recently made by Paul Starr is worth remembering: “The idea of a war on poverty without strengthening the hand of labor was a great mistake.” To do this we need to do much more than increasing the minimum wage.

Finally, I think this effort should be framed in terms of what we’re for—real economic security and opportunity—and not just in terms of what we’re against.

SHAWN FREMSTAD

Senior Research Associate

Center for Economic and Policy Research

“Only if we put in place a four-part policy can we greatly reduce poverty”

Greg,

Poverty cannot be greatly reduced unless the poor who are unemployed, or who work less than full-time, are offered wage-paying Transitional [subsidized] Jobs to enable them to work for wages for forty hours each week.

This is perhaps the single most important policy we can take for reducing poverty. Without a lot of new jobs to offset the now massive—and in most years, substantial—job shortage, we will never get to our goal.

Raising the minimum wage is fine, but unless the worker is employed in the first place it doesn’t matter how high the minimum wage is. $7.25 per hour x 0 hours of work is the same as $8, $9, or $10 x 0 hours of work.

Moreover, the minimum wage cannot be raised high enough—unless it’s raised so high that it truly does wipe out jobs—to lift a large segment of the working poor out of poverty. It is therefore essential to reform the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), particularly by providing a substantial earning supplement for workers without children.

Finally, there is a large group of poor who have so severe a disability that they cannot work, or who have reached an age (whether 65 or older) where we no longer expect them to work to escape poverty. For this group, the best solution is to raise the minimum SSI, SSDI and Social Security payment so that it guarantees an income above the poverty line.

Our work shows that if—and only if—we put in place a four-part policy consisting of (1) offering Transitional Jobs to the unemployed, (2) raising the minimum wage, (3) strengthening the EITC’s earning supplement and (4) providing a higher minimum income for those who cannot work due to a disability, or whom we do not expect to work because of age and retirement—can we greatly reduce poverty.

DAVID R. RIEMER
Senior Fellow
Community Advocates Public Policy Institute

“An excellent start to abolishing [poverty] directly”

Greg,

This call for an anti-poverty contract overlapping with celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth and contributions is an ideal opportunity to acknowledge comments made by King in 1967, “Final Words of Advice”:

“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

“Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber.

“We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.

“…Those at the lowest economic level, the poor white and Negro, the aged and chronically ill, are traditionally unorganized and therefore have little ability to force the necessary growth in their income. They stagnate or become even poorer in relation to the larger society….

“We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

As your post argues, lingering deficit views of people in poverty allow America to avoid directly addressing poverty through action and policy. The commitments you identify are an excellent start to “abolish[ing] it directly” and a monument of action to King that would be far greater than any celebration or citing once again the standard King speeches that allow us to continue ignoring instead of addressing inequity.

PAUL THOMAS, EdD
Furman University
Education

Clips and other resources (compiled with James Cersonsky)

Brownback’s policies: Aiding or abandoning Kansas’ poor,” Eric Adler

What has Emanuel done so far about racial segregation?” Steve Bogira

Where’s the ‘collective action’ in Obama education policy,” Arthur Camins via Valerie Strauss

Parents tell of close calls in wake of school-nurse shortage,” James Cersonsky

Dear President Obama: Want Equal Pay for Equal Work? Here’s Where to Start,” Bryce Covert

Obama to America: Work Harder,” Josh Eidelson

Will Immigration Reform Address H-2 Guestworker Recruiter Violations?” Mike Elk

Dispatches From the US Student Movement,” Extra Credit at The Nation

The Martin Luther King dreams that Obama forgot,” Fredrick Harris

Child poverty rates increase unabated,” (VIDEO) Melissa Harris-Perry

Making the Case for Hastening Progress Toward Health Equity,” Eve J. Higginbotham

Foreclosures and Homelessness: Understanding the Connection,” Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness

A Closer Look at Who Benefits from SNAP: State-by-State Fact Sheets,” Brynne Keith-Jennings

Chipping Away at Poverty—an Exchange” (and readers comments!), Nicholas Kristof, responding to Jonathan Stein and Rebecca Vallas

Backing Obama but still hungry for change,” Trymaine Lee

Young Women Still Behind in Economic Well Being,” Legal Momentum

Making It Happen: How Career Academies Can Build College and Career Exploration Programs,” MDRC

Earnings of the top 1.0 percent rebound strongly in the recovery,” Lawrence Mishel and Nicholas Finio

Does the Housing Voucher Program Enable Households to Move to High-Quality Neighborhoods?” Chris Narducci

Finding Housing Policy Solutions in Shared Challenges across the Atlantic,” Susan Popkin

Will Mississippi Close Its Last Abortion Clinic?” Alissa Quart

What Obama’s Inaugural Address Got Wrong About Poverty,” Betsy Reed

Does Income Inequality Cause High Teen Pregnancy Rates?” Theresa Riley

Unemployed far outnumber job openings in every sector,” Heidi Shierholz

What’s the connection between foreclosures and homelessness?” Anna Simonsen-Meehan

Inequality is Holding Back the Recovery,” Joseph Stiglitz

HUD Transportation Policy May Inadvertently Fuel Residential Segregation,” Philip Tegeler

Passive Radicals: The Manufactured Myth,” P.L. Thomas

A call to Obama to focus on early childhood education,” Elaine Weiss and Cassie Schwerner, via Valerie Strauss

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 34 percent of Latino children. Poorest age group in country.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

People who would have been in poverty if not for Social Security, 2011: 67.6 million (program kept 21.4 million people out of poverty).

Gender gap, 2011: Women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Gender gap, 2010: Women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.

People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: Roughly half.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Low-income families that were working in 2011: More than 70 percent.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Food stamp recipients with no other cash income: 6.5 million people.

People experiencing homelessness on any given night, US: 643,067.

Children living on streets or in homeless shelters, US: 1.6 million, 42% under age six.

Annual cost of child poverty nationwide: $550 billion.

Quote of the week

“Children in other rich countries like Canada, France, Germany and Sweden have a better chance of doing better than their parents did than American kids have. More than a fifth of our children live in poverty—the second worst of all the advanced economies, putting us behind countries like Bulgaria, Latvia and Greece. Our society is squandering its most valuable resource: our young.”
      —Joseph Stiglitz, excerpt from “Inequality Is Holding Back the Recovery.”

James Cersonsky co-wrote the “Clips” section of this blog.

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again on Sundays at Moyers & Company. You can e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.

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