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Facing Down Poverty | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Facing Down Poverty

Last week, President Bush cited the recent Census Report as proof "that more of our citizens are doing better in this economy, with continued rising incomes and more Americans pulling themselves out of poverty." Welcome to the latest episode of Fantasy Island with George Bush.

In fact, as a recent New York Times editorial notes, the 2005 data which the Census Report is based on (and therefore doesn't even account for those suffering from the recent credit crisis) "underscores how the gains from economic growth have failed to benefit most of the population," and that "the gains against poverty last year were remarkably narrow." Since Bush came to power poverty has risen by 9 percent.

And with the passing of the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, there is a sense that the window of opportunity the disaster opened to put poverty back on the national agenda has now closed, with too little political leadership and a media that stopped paying attention.

But while the White House and too many in Congress have indeed turned their backs on New Orleans and Americans struggling to make ends meet, Mark Greenberg, director of the Center for American Progress' (CAP) Task Force on Poverty, says that there has in fact been a "resurgence of interest" in dealing with poverty in America. He says that when it comes to NGO's, and some cities and states, the focus and determination to address the economic pain and hardship that Americans witnessed during Katrina has persisted.

Greenberg points to the US Conference of Mayors Task Force on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. Faith groups like Catholic Charities, Sojourners/Call to Renewal, and Jewish Council on Public Affairs who have "intensified their efforts." Cities like Milwaukee, Savannah, Kalamazoo, Portland, and New York. And three states with poverty commissions – Connecticut, Vermont, and Minnesota – the first two focused on child poverty and the latter on ending poverty by 2020.

"Developments like these are steps forward," Greenberg says. "It's far short of where we want to be, but it's real progress."

In 2004, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to write poverty reduction into a public act, mandating a 50 percent reduction in child poverty by 2014 and establishing the Child Poverty Prevention and Reduction Council. The Council makes recommendations on how to meet the 10-year goal but its up to others to ensure legislative action.

"Since our legislature is controlled by Democrats and the Executive branch by Republicans, there is often a chasm that divides priorities, so we lose important pieces like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and have to go back yearly to fight for them," says Juliet Manalan, Government and Public Relations Specialist for the Connecticut Association for Community Action (CAFCA). CAFCA is the umbrella organization for the state's 12 federally designated anti-poverty agencies from the 1960s War on Poverty.

In April, CAFCA convened the Connecticut Symposium on Child Poverty Reduction to develop a blueprint for action which stakeholders – agencies, business and advocacy groups, education institutions, and public policymakers – could use to address issues of poverty in a cohesive way. There was consensus on the need to establish a refundable state EITC program to supplement low-wage parents' income. (The EITC is a refundable tax credit that supplements the earnings of low- and moderate-income workers); increase parents' access to literacy, post-secondary, and vocational education; strengthen the state's Individual Development Account (IDA) program to assist in the accumulation of assets and enhance matched savings accounts; increase affordable child care so that parents can pursue work and/or education and children are prepared for success in school; ensure public or private health care coverage for families as well as access to providers; support young, at-risk families through home visiting medical and social services which enhance parent/child interaction, parent education, work and life skills, and broaden access to community resources.

In September, CAFCA will again convene over 300 participants for its "Ending Child Poverty: Investing in Our Future" annual conference. "We will provide more information on legislative efforts, business and community partnerships, policy initiatives, and workshops to support the efforts of frontline case management staff," Manalan said. "Connecticut is doing the work and building the coalitions necessary to produce lasting change."

Those coalitions are especially necessary at a time when opponents of change are digging in. There was a legislative attempt to sunset the requirement for Council recommendations this year, which would make it more difficult to track the effectiveness of anti-poverty measures as well as the scope of poverty.

"There are a lot of great people on the Council," Manalan says. "We know the body can be successful, provided the reporting requirements don't disappear."

This year, Vermont also passed legislation to create a Vermont Childhood Poverty Council and develop a strategy to reduce child poverty by 50% in ten years. According to the Rutland Herald, the bill was modeled after the Connecticut initiative. The Poverty Council will hold hearings in all 14 of the state's counties – meeting with citizens and frontline advocates – before issuing a report to the Legislature in January.

"One of my short term goals for the Council is to bring the issue back into the political conversation here in Vermont," council co-chair, Senator Doug Racine, tells me. "In fact, this is necessary if we're to make progress."

Council co-chair, Representative Ann Pugh, told the Herald: "We want to visit the four corners of the state and meet directly with people. It would be easy to hold a public hearing in Montpelier that would be filled with policymakers, but that's not what we want to do."

Racine says the 50 percent child poverty reduction goal is an ambitious one "but it's attainable."

"While we understand that state policies may not be enough in the absence of changes in Washington on tax policies and spending priorities," Racine says, "I believe that we can make significant progress if poverty becomes a high priority issue."

Greenberg agrees that leadership in Washington is necessary in order to achieve needed change. "This can't just be about the federal government," he says. "But in the long run the nation can't make dramatic progress without the federal government, and it's been the noticeably missing partner for the last number of years."

Some members of Congress are working hard to bring attention to the issue. Greenberg points to Ways and Means Committee chair, Charles Rangel, who speaks of the need to address poverty as part of a national security strategy. Rangel started off the year by holding a hearing to examine the economic costs of poverty. Economist Harry Holzer testified that the cost of sustained childhood poverty is in range of $500 billion dollars a year, roughly evenly divided between lowered productivity, increased health care costs, and increased crime-related costs. Holzer took a conservative approach, examining a set of variables that are readily quantifiable. A Republican scholar testifying at the hearing called the study "superb." As a result, this figure is one that is increasingly incorporated into analysis of poverty. (On the flip side, Rangel supports "paygo" which makes it much more difficult to get the money to invest in cutting poverty.)

Representative Jim McDermott has also played a key role as chair of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support. Recently, Greenberg and others testified before McDermott's Committee on shortcomings regarding how we measure poverty in America – inadequacies in measuring the scope of the problem and the impact of anti-poverty efforts.

But it is Representative Barbara Lee – co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and also the Out of Poverty Caucus – who along with 13 co-sponsors is introducing the boldest legislation, incorporating the recommendations of the CAP Poverty Task Force and setting a national goal to reduce poverty by 50 percent over the next ten years.

Greenberg points to real progress already being achieved such as new minimum wage laws and expanded state EITCs. And, he says, the poverty commissions will promote overall development of state strategy, bring the issues to the forefront, promote accountability, and hopefully lead to stronger action at the federal level.

For decades Americans have heard the tired refrain, "We waged a war on Poverty and Poverty won." Taking on that view, Greenberg says, "It's a very common challenge in a discussion about poverty. It's clear from polling that people wish something could be done but they fear that government action always goes wrong or is counterproductive. But the real story of why poverty stopped falling after the early 70's isn't failed government policies. The biggest factor has been that since that time economic growth has been slower and much less equitably distributed. The fact is we've learned a lot about how to reduce poverty and we know things that work. It's ultimately a question of political will."

There is hope that many good leaders, activists and organizations across the nation are committed to the fight against poverty. We need to pay attention, and bring that energy and focus back to places like New Orleans, and demand that our political representatives do the same. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once told us, "We may not all be guilty, but we are all responsible."

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