Quantcast

Greg Kaufmann | The Nation

  •  

Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

#TalkPoverty: Fifteen Questions for the Second Presidential Debate

I’m not exactly sure how tonight’s town hall-style debate will work—whether Candy Crowley will have the opportunity she surely deserves to push President Obama and Governor Romney further in their responses to questions posed by the audience.

If she does, I hope she will consider these questions below. They are just fourteen (and one posed by me) of the thirty-one questions offered by experts and also families that have lived in poverty as part of The Nation’s “#TalkPoverty: Questions for Obama and Romney” campaign. Most of these were offered before the first debate, but since they weren’t asked or answered, we’re asking again. Thank you Peter Edelman, Mariana Chilton, Jessica Bartholow, Tim Casey, Lisalyn Jacobs, and Equal Voice families for all of your great questions.

The Nation encourages you to tweet this article to @CrowleyCNN and your networks—who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and a town hall participant will read it too. Use #TalkPoverty to push your own questions about poverty during the debate and to weigh in on whether the candidates are taking this issue seriously enough.

Finally, join Nation writers, editors and readers tonight for an online debate watch party complete with humor and analysis.

* * *

1. More than 20 million people in America have with incomes below half the poverty line—less than about $9,000 for a family of three. That’s up from 12.6 million in 2000. What will you do to address this growing problem?

2. One-fifth of US children are poor. Do you agree that national policy should assure an above-poverty income to all children whose parents are willing to work?

3. One in five children in the United States struggles with hunger. As president, what would you do about our growing hunger crisis in America—especially for young children?

4. Poverty rates are 30 percent higher for women than men. What would you do to reduce the gender poverty gap?

5. Rural poverty persists as a blight for people across the country, from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama Black Belt to the colonias of south Texas, and Indian reservations in many places. What will you do to help reduce the poverty in these places?

6. Investments in early childhood are key to children’s prospects for productive lives. Yet federal assistance for childcare currently reaches only about one in seven of those who are eligible. What will you do to increase the availability of quality childcare to more low-income children?

7. Government statistics show 106 million people with incomes below twice the poverty line—below about $46,000 for a family of four. This reflects the large number of low-wage jobs in the nation. What will you do to increase the income of these people who are struggling to make ends meet every month?

8. What is the appropriate role for the government in improving the likelihood that an honest day’s work earns a living wage?

9. Despite their above-average employment rates compared to single mothers in other high-income countries, single mothers in the United States have higher poverty rates. What would you do to reduce poverty for single mothers and their children?

10. Urban concentrated poverty has climbed again close to the high point it reached in 1990. What will you do to help improve the quality of life of people who are currently isolated in America’s inner cities?

11. As you consider changes to the tax code, what types of tax credits do you envision creating, retaining or eliminating that focus on low-income families (e.g., earned income tax credit, child tax credit, low-income housing tax credit, others)?

12. What will you do to make sure that veterans are supported in their re-entry into civilian life—with vocational support that translates their skills into good jobs with good wages; and to support veterans whose opportunities have been limited by physical or mental injuries?

13. How will you ensure that all children—especially children from families who cannot afford to pay for postsecondary schooling—can earn an advanced degree?

14. The unemployment rate for 18 to 29-year-olds for August 2012 was 12.7 percent. How will you help young parents who need the opportunity to earn a living wage for their families?

15. Bonus: According to AARP, 9 million people age 50 and over are at risk of hunger every day. What will you do to focus on this problem, and especially hunger among seniors?

This Week in Poverty: Cutting Poverty in Half in Ryan’s Wisconsin

In last night’s vice presidential debate, Congressman Paul Ryan twice brought up the Republican ticket’s talking point that 15 percent of Americans live in poverty, and twice failed to offer a single idea on how a Romney administration would help create opportunities for low-income people.

He simply insisted, “We want to get people out of poverty, in the middle class, on to lives of self-sufficiency.”

The good news is that if Ryan truly wants to reduce poverty in a significant way—to make his mark as a champion of low-income people—he need not look any further than the thinkers in his own Badger State.

Four years ago, Community Advocates Public Policy Institute in Milwaukee asked: what would it take to reduce poverty in the state by more than half, to a rate below 5 percent? The institute spoke with a bipartisan group of local and national advisers, narrowing a pool of twenty-five possible policy changes down to four. Last month they rolled out their final proposal. Through sophisticated and widely respected quantitative modeling, Urban Institute demonstrated that the policies would reduce poverty by between 58 and 81 percent in Wisconsin.

The four recommendations are simple and clear:

  1. Create a senior and disability tax credit
  2. Expand a transitional, subsidized jobs program
  3. Increase the minimum wage to $8 an hour
  4. Reform the Earned Income Tax Credit

These four policy changes were chosen in part because they lend themselves to accurate modeling. Urban Institute concluded that implementation would dramatically reduce poverty for children, adults under 65, and seniors; people of all races; and for workers and those who can’t work.

“This report is one step in overcoming this fatalism that there’s nothing that can be done about poverty—one step in slaying that myth,” said Conor Williams, an economic policy analyst and consultant on the project.

“We can reduce the poverty rate to under 4 percent or 3 percent if we want to,” said senior fellow David Riemer.

The project looked at the 435,000 people in Wisconsin living below the poverty line in 2008: 100,000 were children; 60,000 were 65 or older; and about 60,000 were disabled and couldn’t work. That left 215,000 people of working age who were capable of working—nearly 20 percent of whom indeed worked full-time, all year long. The next largest group was those who either worked full-time part of the year, or worked part-time throughout the year.

“So the vast majority of adults in poverty are working—and they have both the desire and capacity to work,” said Williams. “The current situation is a market failure, and three of the four policies are small supplements to make the market function correctly so that working people are able to lift themselves out of poverty.”

With the proliferation of low-wage work those kinds of supplements are sorely needed. The Economic Policy Institute reports that 50 percent of jobs in the United States pay less than $34,000 per year, and 25 percent pay less than $23,000 annually (less than the poverty level for a family of four).

One key policy that supports low-wage workers is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)—championed by knee-jerk liberals such as Presidents Ford and Reagan. The proposed reforms would provide up to $3,500 per worker, and up to $5,000 for working families with children.

“The current EITC favors families with children, and disfavors childless adults, many of whom are young men,” said Williams. “This new plan represents a significant increase in the tax credits available to childless adults.”

The subsidized transitional jobs program would provide unemployed and underemployed adults with minimum wage jobs. In the past two years, 3,600 workers have participated in a demonstration project in the state, mostly working for small, for-profit businesses. Over 1,400 have gone on to secure unsubsidized employment.

“These are people with significant barriers to employment—they’ve either been out of work for a long time, have low skills, or have a significant criminal record,” said Williams. “But it shows that if you give them the opportunity to work they are as good stewards of that opportunity as the rest of us are.”

Subsidized jobs have been widely hailed by both Democratic and Republican governors—like Haley Barbour and Scott Walker—and the Recovery Act created 260,000 such jobs for low-income adults before Republicans in Congress killed the program. This kind of investment is particularly key in metro areas like Milwaukee, where just 52 percent of African-American males in their prime working years were employed in 2010, compared to 85 percent in 1970.

The third proposal that would benefit working adults is to raise the minimum wage to $8 an hour. That hardly seems extreme, given that it would be $10.55 an hour if it were adjusted for inflation in the same way that, say, individual campaign contribution limits are.

Williams said that together, all three of these work-related provisions—subsidized jobs, tax credits and an increased minimum wage—reflect “broad support for the idea that through work people should be able to provide for the basic material needs of their households.”

The final policy—a new senior and disability tax credit—would go to adults receiving Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and make up the difference between an individual’s or couple’s resources and a poverty-level income.

The potential outcomes of this proposal are stunning and measurable. Depending on the extent of participation in the subsidized jobs program and existing programs, the 58–82 percent reduction in poverty would mean an overall poverty rate of just 1.5–3.4 percent, including: a child poverty rate that drops from nearly 8 percent (based on 2008 levels) to between 2.8 and .8 percent; an African-American poverty rate that drops from 18.5 percent to between 7.3 and 2.9 percent; and a senior poverty rate that falls from 9.1 percent to between 3.5 and 1.7 percent.


Source: Community Advocates Public Policy Institute

The Urban Institute concludes that the four policy changes alone would reduce the number of people in poverty in Wisconsin by between 252,000 and 287,000. If it were combined with full participation in existing programs that help low-income people, poverty would be reduced by 351,000 people.

The federal cost? Between $3 and $5 billion. But what can’t be modeled are the associated cost savings or multiplier effects of the investments. Williams noted, for example, that the fastest-growing departmental budget in the state of Wisconsin over the past twenty years is for the Department of Corrections—now higher than the budget for the entire state university system.

“If you care for the most marginalized you ultimately care for yourselves,” said Williams. “For $10,000 you can find a transitional job for somebody that might otherwise end up costing you $30,000 to incarcerate.”

It’s reasonable to assume there would also be significant savings gained through the huge reduction in child poverty rates. Economist Harry Holzer has put the costs of child poverty nationwide at $550 billion per year, or 3.8 percent of GDP, roughly evenly divided between lost productivity, increased crime-related costs, and increased health care costs.

“It’s a quintessentially American idea to try to extend opportunity as widely and as broadly as possible,” said Williams. “And these 435,000 people who live in poverty in the state of Wisconsin—with a small additional effort—they can be included in the opportunities that most of the rest of us enjoy.”

The focus of Community Advocates Public Policy Institute is now to speak with state legislators to advocate for bills that adopt these policies, even if it happens incrementally.

“Poverty is not inevitable. Our proposal and the Urban Institute analysis show one plausible, simple way to get the job done,” said Riemer. “There may be others. It’s a matter of will. It always has been.”

The Streak Continues: 2008–12, Will Anyone #TalkPoverty?

There are 46 million people living in poverty—on less than $18,000 a year for a family of three. 20 million live in deep poverty—surviving on less than $9,000 annually for a family of three. And there are now over 16 million children in poverty—22 percent of all kids—making them our nation’s poorest age group.

Given these horrific numbers, it is stunning that neither Jim Lehrer nor Martha Raddatz deemed poverty to be an issue worth talking about in the first two debates of the presidential campaign.

I would imagine that it’s not just antipoverty advocates who are disappointed in the lack of real discourse about this issue. In January, a poll conducted for Spotlight on Poverty—an initiative of major US foundations to foster debate on poverty and opportunity during the campaign—revealed that 88 percent of likely voters said a presidential candidate’s position on poverty was “important” in determining their vote; nearly half said it was “very important.”

Still, the blame doesn’t lie entirely with the moderators. Just as there were plenty of opportunities for President Obama and Governor Romney to address poverty in a substantive way last week, the same was true in last night’s vice presidential debate.

The Romney-Ryan ticket continues to use the poverty statistic as a bludgeon without offering a single concrete idea on how to create opportunities for low-income people, and without demonstrating the slightest understanding of what people in poverty are experiencing today.

For its part, the Obama campaign seems to have made a decision not to talk about poverty unless asked. For example, when Congressman Ryan said that his faith informs him “about how to take care of the vulnerable, about how to make sure that people have a chance in life,” Biden surely could have seized that opening had he wished to. Yes, the question was about abortion, but he could have succinctly answered and pivoted—looking in the camera the way he likes to and said:

“Look folks, Congressman Ryan talks a good game about taking care of the vulnerable, but here’s what he doesn’t tell you: that repealing Obamacare like they want to would leave 30 million Americans uninsured who would have been insured under our plan. That the Romney Medicaid cuts would leave an additional 14 to 19 million low-income people uninsured. That compensation for disabled veterans—which averages less than $13,000 a year—would be cut by one-fifth to one-third, as would pensions for low-income veterans, which now average just $11,000 a year. How’s that for thanking our veterans for their service? SSI benefits for poor elderly and disabled people—which currently average just $6,000 per year—would also be cut by one-fifth to one-third under a Romney administration. Folks, we’re talking about elderly and disabled people who are already living well below the poverty line. And why do Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan take an axe to the benefits of people who are in the most desperate situations? That’s the kicker—for one reason, and one reason only: to give more tax cuts to wealthy people who need them the least. Congressman, I got news for you, if that’s your idea of caring for the vulnerable, I think you better revisit the social doctrine of our shared Catholic faith.”

I don’t doubt that Congressman Ryan would have an articulate response to these assertions—one I’d disagree with, no doubt, but articulate nonetheless. But neither campaign is taking any initiative to have this conversation, and the moderators seem to share their view that it’s just not worth talking about.

So now it’s all about Tuesday and CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley. This very well might be the last shot, since the final presidential debate will focus on foreign policy. You can check out some of the poverty-related questions TheNation.com has gathered from experts and families—and tweet the ones you want answers to—to @crowleyCNN; or get involved with the Half in Ten campaign and push for a question on child poverty.

I don’t know if we will get them to #TalkPoverty in a substantive way—but I do know there’s a growing number of people trying, and that bodes well as we continue to push for attention to the aspirations of those at the bottom of our economy.

Articles and other resources

Transporting Black Men to Good Jobs,” Algernon Austin

Emanuel should give Chicagoans a Voice on City Budget,” Tom Balanoff

Shrinking Affordable Housing Creates Hardship for Survivors of Domestic Abuse,” Sheila Bapat

Yes, We Can Fight Inequality….” Annette Bernhardt

Chicago’s growing racial gap in child poverty,” Steve Bogira (*new weekly blog on segregation)

9 million elderly at risk of empty pantries,” Alesha Williams Boyd

Groups Nationwide Challenge Congress Not to Harm Low-income Americans…” Coalition on Human Needs

Why We Should Care About the Walmart Strikers,” Bryce Covert

On the Road With Working America,” Josh Eidelson

Homeless Are Fighting Back Against Panhandling Bans,” Dan Frosch

US lags behind peer countries in mobility,” Elise Gould

With shelters full, homeless families have nowhere to go,” Annie Gowen

Where Are America’s Poor?” Rabbi Steve Gutow

…Those Who Move to Less-Impoverished Neighborhoods Happier,” Carolyn Johnson

Hour-Long Special on Choices Faced By People Living in Poverty,” Marketplace Wealth and Poverty Desk

Poverty is More Than a Number,” Stephanie Schmit

On Fiscal Cliff, Progressives Issue Poverty Plea,” Jonathan Strong

Orange County revamps assistance for indigent following lawsuit,” Bernice Yeung

The Day the Babies Balked: Asking Candidates for Substance as Well as Kisses,” ZERO TO THREE

Report

Downward Slide: State Child Care Assistance Policies 2012,” Karen Schulman, Helen Blank, National Women’s Law Center. The report finds that child care assistance for low-income working women lags significantly behind demand and jeopardizes the economic stability of millions of families. Families in twenty-seven states are worse off under one or more key childcare policies in 2012 than in 2011, and better off in just seventeen states. Twenty-three states have waiting lists or frozen intake for eligible families. Seven states set new eligibility requirements that reduced the number of eligible families. Only one state reimburses providers at the federally recommended level. Securing reliable, affordable childcare is inextricably linked to the ability to work for many women, and too many are left with few options.

America’s Report Card 2012: Children in the US,” First Focus and Save the Children. The nation’s report card is in on how it supports five key areas of a child’s life—and it looks like someone is getting grounded: economic security (D); early childhood (C-); K-12 education (C-); permanency and stability (D); health and safety (C+); overall grade (C-).

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $23,021 for a family of four): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including more than one in three African American and Latino children. Poorest age group in the country.

Poverty rate among families with children headed by single mothers: 40.9 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20 million people, 1 in 15 Americans.

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

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.

Youth employment: lowest level in more than sixty years.

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

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.

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 women.

People age 50 and over at risk of hunger every day: 9 million.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Impact of public policy, 1964–1973: poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

Quote of the Week

“We aim to shift the debate about poverty to a serious, evidence-based discussion about which combination of policies will work best to greatly reduce poverty.”
      —from “Reducing Poverty in Wisconsin,”
          Community Advocates Public Policy Institute

Research assistance provided by Christie Thompson.

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

Want more Election 2012 coverage from The Nation? Sign up for our weekly Election 2012 email here.

#TalkPoverty: After the Debate, More Questions from Families for Obama and Romney

The streak is alive!

It doesn’t receive the kind of attention that the Chicago Cubs do for years without a World Series title; or even New Orleans Saints quarterback, Drew Brees, for the number of games straight in which he’s thrown a touchdown pass.

But it’s a streak worth pay attention to: at least five presidential or vice presidential debates straight without a single question about poverty, dating back to 2008!

Batter up, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, with CNN’s Candy Crowley on deck. There are about 100 million people who not only can’t afford to take their families out to the ballgame, they can barely afford enough peanuts or Cracker Jacks to go around.

Without fanfare, we are shattering US poverty records: 46 million people—including 16 million children, or 22 percent of all kids—now live in poverty, on less than $18,000 a year for a family of three. Over one in three Americans, 106 million people—live on less than $36,000 a year, facing many of the same tough choices as those in “official” poverty—between basics like food, housing and healthcare. Forget about any significant savings to weather a storm or send a kid to college.

And yet, in a ninety-minute debate focusing on domestic policy—which moderator Jim Lehrer said would feature three segments on the economy, and one each on healthcare, the role of government and governing—poverty wasn’t deemed worthy of a single question.

Not that the blame lies entirely on Lehrer.

Governor Romney referenced “one out of six people in poverty” without offering a single serious policy proposal to help people toward living wage jobs. This is par for the course, the poverty numbers being a talking point he uses to attack President Obama. In his Republican convention speech: “Nearly one out of six Americans is living in poverty.… These are our brothers and sisters, our fellow Americans.” And in an e-mail last week with the subject heading, “Victory in Sight,” Romney writes that “nearly one in six Americans is living in poverty.” The most specific Romney has been to date regarding assistance to low-income people was in his series of campaign ads saying that Obama is gutting the work requirement from welfare—something that people on all sides have denounced as an outright lie.

For his part, President Obama failed (and showed little desire) to seize numerous openings to discuss the struggles of those at the bottom of our economy.

When Romney used the poverty rate to attack him, Obama could have mentioned that the Recovery Act—which Romney and most in the GOP opposed—kept nearly 7 million people out of poverty in 2010. When Romney proposed block-granting Medicaid to the states, Obama could have mentioned that the sixteen-year experiment with block-granting cash welfare (TANF) to states has resulted in only 27 of every 100 families with children in poverty receiving aid, as opposed to 68 prior to the block grant. Or that the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid to everybody under 138 percent of the federal poverty line—17 million more low-income adults and children—was not only a life-saving and historic victory for people in poverty but also saves state and local governments resources currently spent on uncompensated care and services for the uninsured. When Social Security was brought up, it was an opportunity to educate America that this is the single-most important antipoverty program in the United States, keeping more than 21 million people out of poverty last year alone. Obama could have noted that unemployment insurance lifted 2.3 million people out of poverty last year—3.2 million the year before, thanks to a temporary benefit increase in the Recovery Act—and that Republican opposition to extending unemployment benefits this year has further eroded its antipoverty effect.

The good news is that there are a growing number of people and advocacy groups who are angry with moderators and candidates who fail to push a substantive conversation about public policy and how it impacts those living in poverty or near-poverty.

To that end, here is TheNation.com’s final installment in its five-part #TalkPoverty series.

* * *

The Marguerite Casey Foundation believes that every family should have an equal voice in the policies affecting their lives and communities. Since 2001, the foundation has provided long-term support to grassroots organizations that fight poverty by helping low-income families organize and advocate on their own behalf.

“Low-income families know better than anyone what they need in order to thrive and succeed,” says Luz Vega-Marquis, president and CEO of the foundation. “They have the answers—but they are never asked.”

So four years ago the Marguerite Casey Foundation did ask. It turned to low-income families to shape a new Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign. The families were tasked with drafting and adopting a national platform that would articulate the challenges they face in their lives and the policy changes that would strengthen their economic security and opportunity.

“Thirty thousand people took part,” says Vega-Marquis. “From prisoners in Washington state, to immigrant farm workers in Florida, to families living in unincorporated colonias in the Rio Grande Valley, to teenagers living in violence-plagued neighborhoods in Chicago.”

The effort resulted in a national platform and also regional networks that today continue to organize to advance family-friendly policies supporting economic and social wellbeing.

In May, 15,000 families took part in the Equal Voice National Online Convention to update the national platform. They gathered in Seattle; Birmingham; and McAllen, Texas; and in other cities and rural towns where the convention was streamed live into schools, coffee shops, libraries, offices and people’s homes.

Participants discussed the issues and voted on a platform in-person and online. Education was rated the top priority, and other issues addressed included: immigration reform, healthcare, jobs, housing, child care, food security, criminal justice reform, elder care, LGBT rights, transportation and youth engagement.

Today, using the national platform as a guide, the regional networks are organizing and have won some hard-fought victories:

• In Texas, the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network helped turn back eighty pieces of anti-immigrant legislation and worked to overturn state voter-ID laws.

• Across the country, with pressure from Equal Voice families and allies, school boards are ending harsh zero-tolerance policies that often push children out of the education system and into the juvenile justice system.

• Equal Voice families are taking on corporate giants for egregious environmental practices—like in Richmond, California, where a vapor cloud leaking from an old Chevron refinery pipe caught fire in August.

• Equal Voice families are fighting for fair working conditions and wages, against foreclosures and for equity in education.

Here are five questions for President Obama and Governor Romney from people who are part of the Equal Voice movement:

Jason and Dana Beasley Brown, both 30 years old, live in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Jason is the executive director of family ministries at Broadway United Methodist Church. Dana cares for their two children, ages 4 and 2.

They grew up in working class families and neither of their parents obtained a four-year college degree. However, Jason and Dana both earned bachelor’s degrees with the help of public grants and loans, and publicly funded scholarships, and are concerned that young people today won’t have that same opportunity. They ask:

“How will you ensure that all children—especially children from families who cannot afford to pay for postsecondary schooling—can earn an advanced degree?”

Star Paschal, 31, lives in Auburn, Alabama, with her three daughters. She is the Section 8 property manager at Auburn Housing Authority.

Paschal argues that the barriers preventing the working poor from greater opportunity and security are commonly interrelated, including a lack of access to high quality childcare, high performing public schools, higher education, living wage jobs and transportation. She asks:

“Is it a priority of your administration to address the systemic hurdles imposed on working-poor families? If so, explain your comprehensive plan to do so.”

Marilynn Montano, 18, is a student at Santa Ana College in Southern California. Her generation is the first in her family to go to college. Montano is majoring in journalism and plans to pursue a PhD in Chicano studies. Her family has often lived in overcrowded conditions and lost its condominium unit to foreclosure. She asks:

“California has seen a lot of home foreclosures and evictions. Many families not only can’t afford to buy a home, they can’t even afford to pay rent. What will you do to help low-income families afford housing?”

Frank Fregoso, 17, is a high school student in Santa Ana, California. He is an active volunteer in his community, including at The Cambodian Family and the Latino Health Access. A passionate artist, he plans to attend college to study music therapy, philosophy, English or the arts. He lives with his parents, two younger sisters and younger brother. He asks:

“Why do you think there is a crisis in the economy, and how can it be resolved without raising taxes or cutting the budgets of schools and other essential organizations for the community?”

Sheldon Smith, 24, was born and raised in Chicago, one of five children in a low-income family. His father moved in and out of his life. Smith became a father when he was 21. Today, nothing motivates him more than his love for his 3-year-old daughter and his community.

As founder of The Dovetail Project—a program to help young men acquire the parenting and life skills they need to be better fathers—Smith has worked with hundreds of youth throughout Chicago. He believes that helping one generation be better parents can mean a better life for many future generations. He asks:

“For the fathers I work with at the Dovetail Project, employment is one of the most important issues. The unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds for August 2012 was 12.7 percent. How will you support young parents ages 17 to 24 who need the opportunity to earn a living wage for their families?”

#TalkPoverty: Thirteen Questions for the First Presidential Debate

Editor's Note: Join Nation writers, editors and readers tonight for an online debate watch party—complete with humor, analysis and political drinking games! RSVP here.

A few months ago, anticipating that the presidential campaigns would fail to focus in any substantive way on the record levels of poverty now plaguing the country, The Nation kicked off a campaign to push the candidates to think and talk about this issue.

“#TalkPoverty: Questions for Obama and Romney” profiles experts who have devoted their lives to fighting poverty, and gives them the opportunity to ask the presidential candidates the questions that they want answers to. Next, The Nation will hound the campaigns for responses.

To date, Peter Edelman, Mariana Chilton, Jessica Bartholow, Tim Casey and Lisalyn Jacobs have offered twenty-one questions, which—if the candidates were to respond directly to them—would give voters a much deeper understanding of poverty in this country and the next president’s vision for taking it on.

We will still have at least one more round of questions from families who know poverty firsthand. But, today, I’ve selected thirteen questions from our five experts that deserve immediate attention—starting with tomorrow’s debate.

We encourage you to tweet this article to all of the presidential debate moderators: @NewsHour, @CrowleyCNN, and @BobSchiffer. During and after the debate, use #TalkPoverty to push your own questions about poverty and to weigh in on whether the candidates are taking this issue seriously enough.

We are thrilled that so many individuals and organizations have taken up the #TalkPoverty campaign—organizations like the Half In Ten coalition and the Coalition on Human Needs, among many others. Now it’s time to step up our game—keep pushing for a substantive conversation and action—through tomorrow’s debate and beyond the Election Day.

* * *

1. More than 20 million people in America have with incomes below half the poverty line—less than about $9,000 for a family of three. That’s up from 12.6 million in 2000. What will you do to address this growing problem?

2. One-fifth of US children are poor. Do you agree that national policy should assure an above-poverty income to all children whose parents are willing to work?

3. One in five children in the United States struggle with hunger. As president, what would you do about our growing hunger crisis in America—especially for young children?

4. Poverty rates are 30 percent higher for women than men. What would you do to reduce the gender poverty gap?

6. Rural poverty persists as a blight for people across the country, from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama Black Belt to the colonias of south Texas, and Indian reservations in many places. What will you do to help reduce the poverty in these places?

7. Investments in early childhood are key to children’s prospects for productive lives. Yet federal assistance for childcare currently reaches only about one in seven of those who are eligible. What will you do to increase the availability of quality childcare to more low-income children?

8. Government statistics show that 106 million people with incomes below twice the poverty line—below about $46,000 for a family of four. This reflects the large number of low-wage jobs in the nation. What will you do to increase the income of these people who are struggling to make ends meet every month?

9. Food stamps (SNAP) enrolls 90 percent of eligible children but cash welfare (TANF) only 40 percent. What would you do to increase eligible children’s enrollment rate in TANF?

10. Despite their above-average employment rates compared to single mothers in other high-income countries, single mothers in the United States have higher poverty rates. What would you do to reduce poverty for single mothers and their children?

11. Urban concentrated poverty has climbed again close to the high point it reached in 1990. What will you do to help improve the quality of life of people who are currently isolated in America’s inner cities?

12. What will you do to ensure that those receiving TANF benefits—who are able to work—receive adequate training so that they are able to transition effectively and permanently into the workforce?

13. As you consider changes to the tax code, what types of tax credits do you envision creating, retaining or eliminating that focus on low-income families (e.g., earned income tax credit, child tax credit, low-income housing tax credit, others)?

Poverty isn’t the only subject candidates are likely to gloss over in the debates. Check out Mark Hertsgaard’s ten pressing questions on energy and the environment.

This Week in Poverty: The Invisibles in Mississippi and the US

Before there was Clinton-Gingrich Welfare Reform in 1996 there was Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice’s “Work First” pilot program in 1995.

That year, the Clinton administration granted the Republican governor a waiver to implement a new work requirement in six counties that Fordice claimed would result in 50 percent of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) recipients getting off welfare and into jobs within three years.

One of the targeted counties was Harrison County, where Reverend Carol Burnett was running a literacy program for low-income women in east Biloxi. Burnett—one of the first women United Methodist ministers in Mississippi—would later serve as director of the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS) Office of Children and Youth in a Democratic administration.

“The women in this program were just trying to learn basic literacy skills, hoping they would be able to continue their education and get decent jobs in the future,” Burnett tells me. “Under the first President Bush women were allowed to pursue education while receiving welfare support. But the Mississippi pilot program changed that.”

Women were quickly forced out of literacy and other education programs to work as security guards, shrimp pickers, fast food workers, in poultry plants or at other low-wage jobs.

“We’re talking about low-wage jobs without the possibility of promotion, since the women didn’t have the education level needed for promotion,” says Burnett. “And a lot of seasonal jobs that were obviously short-term too.”

A 1996 report from graduate students at the University of Southern Mississippi’s School of Social Work indicated that women were also forced from GED programs, and two-year associate degree programs, in order to take Work First jobs. Some did so despite lacking access to childcare—even when working night shifts—so children were placed in situations that increased their risk of suffering abuse or neglect.

“How feasible is it to expect mothers to care for children, work in a minimum wage job, and obtain an education on their own time with unreliable or no transportation, and no child care provided?” the report authors asked. “Most analysts agree that post-secondary education targeted to living wage jobs would provide a more realistic pathway out of poverty for mothers and their children.”

When public hearings were held to assess the Work First program and whether it should be rolled out statewide, Burnett shared the report with state legislators.

“We were telling them that this was a terrible idea, that it would be devastating,” says Burnett. “That it was locking poor women into low-wage work that would keep them mired in poverty.”

Not only was the report ignored, but the Fordice Administration allegedly threatened to terminate DHS’s training contract with the university for making the report public. Before the hearings were completed, President Clinton signed welfare reform into national law, replacing the AFDC cash assistance program with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)—very similar to the Work First program. The report by the grad students of Southern Miss would prove prescient.

Today, it is very difficult for women to use education to count towards their TANF work requirement. Instead, most are stuck in low-wage jobs, earning a welfare benefit that is below 30 percent of the poverty line in most states (below $5,300 annually for a family of three). If they find a job that pays slightly better—a job that could get them off of TANF—they risk losing childcare, so the pay raise might be negligible or even a net loss. Currently, only about one in seven families qualifying for federal childcare assistance actually receives it.

Welfare reform also created lifetime limits, which range from twenty-one months to five years, depending on the state. It mandated that states sanction recipients off of TANF if they don’t meet their work requirement. That’s in part why we see an increase in the number of women and children in deep poverty, which is less than half the poverty line—less than $9,000 annual income for a family of three. 20 million Americans—one in fifteen—now live in deep poverty; up from 12.6 million in 2000, or an increase of 59 percent.

In all, the TANF program now reaches approximately 27 families for every 100 families with children in poverty. Its predecessor, AFDC, reached 68 families for every 100 families with children in poverty. Yet both parties widely proclaim welfare reform a success and the media rarely challenges this notion.

During the brouhaha over Governor Mitt Romney’s ads and stump speech that falsely accused the Obama administration of ending the work requirement for TANF, there was little substantive coverage of the issue. The commentary focused almost exclusively on calling out Romney’s lie, and the Obama campaign’s retort that any new TANF waivers would actually raise the number of welfare recipients working by 20 percent.

It was a missed opportunity to ask pressing questions, like: Why is TANF failing to help lift families out of poverty and leading to fewer people getting the assistance they need? Why are women now 34 percent more likely than men to be in poverty, despite above average employment rates compared to single mothers in other high-income countries? Why is the block grant the same as it was in 1996—as if we could cap economic need and pain—and not indexed to inflation? Why have real benefits levels fallen by 20 percent or more in thirty-four states, even as caseloads have declined? How are states using that money that used to go directly to poor families?

It seems more fashionable these days to simply blame single mothers for their struggles—either subtly, or not so subtly. Even New York Times reporter Jason DeParle recently noted research saying that “single parenthood explained about 40 percent of inequality’s growth.” He then suggested, “Marriage…can help make men marriageable.”

The implication is that by simply marrying, single mothers will end up with a good partner—even if the partner initially seems not so “marriageable”—and rise from their economic struggles. Absent from this article and too many others is any significant discussion of the policy choices that are making the lives of single mothers and their children harder: a lack of childcare, a federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour, no paid sick leave and no pay equity, unaffordable healthcare, to name just a few.

“Rather than continuing to blame women on welfare for imagined deficiencies, new policies are needed which support single women in their breadwinner roles,” wrote the Southern Miss grad students sixteen years ago. “Policy goals of increasing wages, providing quality childcare, and investing in training and education of low-income women would be more appropriate to actual needs, and would begin to address the core problems of poverty.”

Today, as the founder and executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, Burnett is still fighting to help low-income parents get the child care they need. But there are now over 8,000 children on the waiting list. And when parents hit their lifetime TANF limit, they not only lose cash assistance but child care as well, and childcare centers lose a reliable source of income—ninety-six have shut down in the past year. The state is, however, investing in new fingerprint scanners to use on parents who receive a childcare subsidy.

Knowing there is little chance for new funding with a Republican governor, State House and State Senate, Burnett is locked in a freedom of information battle in an effort to determine how Mississippi is spending its TANF block grant. The monies can go to a broad range of activities that have nothing to do with childcare or cash assistance, and also have been used to “plug holes in state budgets or free up funds for purposes unrelated to low-income families or children,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

So far, Burnett has only received information on about $8 million of the state’s $90 million block grant. In 2001, she and her colleagues at DHS learned that the previous Republican administration had allowed $69 million in TANF money to go unspent. The lack of transparency on how the resources are being used is hardly unusual. The US General Accountability Office reports that “there is little information on the numbers of people served by TANF funds other than cash assistance.”

Mississippi now ranks worst in the nation with 31.8 percent of children living in poverty, and worst in the nation in child well-being according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2012 Kids Count Data Book, a national and state-by-state effort to track the well-being of children. For every 100 families with children in poverty in the state, only ten now receive TANF cash assistance. In 2009–10, according to the CBPP, there were 117,327 families with children in poverty, and just 11,773 TANF cases.

As for those parents who are being sanctioned off of welfare because they are unable to meet the work requirement or they reach lifetime limits:

“They are now virtually invisible to the country and in the current political discourse,” says Burnett.

Clips

…Wal-Mart Continues to Defend Unequal Pay Practices,” Sheila Bapat

Welfare Cases in Ohio Tumble,” Kate Giammarise

…Plugging Disconnected Youth Back into the Labor Market,” Linda Harris

Child Poverty Rate Rising in Many States,” Julia Isaacs

2011 State Poverty Data Underscore Need to Protect Programs for Low-Income Women,” National Women’s Law Center

Standing Up for Teachers,” Eugene Robinson

I Was a Welfare Mother,” Larkin Warren

Chicago Teachers Go to Bat—and Take a Hit—for Their Students,” Elaine Weiss

Studies/Briefs

Reducing Poverty in Wisconsin: Analysis of the Community Advocates Public Policy Institute Policy Package,” Linda Giannarelli, Kye Lippold, Michael Martinez-Schiferl, Urban Institute. Analysis shows that a package of policies developed by Community Advocates Public Policy Institute could reduce Wisconsin’s poverty rate by 58 to 66 percent. The policies include a Senior and Disability Income Tax Credit, transitional jobs, an increase in the minimum wage to $8, and expansion of income tax credits related to earnings.

The State of Working America: Poverty Fact Sheet,” Economic Policy Institute. Americans are working longer and harder but becoming poorer and less economically secure. In 2011, 28 percent of workers earned poverty-level wages. Income inequality is the largest factor contributing to higher poverty rates. Increased numbers of minorities and single-mother-headed households are often cited as determinants of higher poverty rates, though they are much smaller contributing factors.

Maintaining and Strengthening Supplemental Security Income for Children with Disabilities,” Rebecca Vallas and Shawn Fremstad, Center for American Progress. Supplemental Security is an effective support for children with severe disabilities and their families. Among its strengths, it reduces poverty and increases economic security by offsetting some of the extra costs and lost parental income associated with raising a child with a severe disability; it also supports work and education for parents and youth. This brief examines how it can be strengthened to further increase economic security and opportunity for children with disabilities and their families.

Get Involved

No Kid Hungry: Watch and Share Protect SNAP Video and Take Action Now
#TalkPoverty at the Debates
Dear Mr. Lehrer

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $23,021 for a family of four): 46.2 million people, 15 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.

Poverty rate among families with children headed by single mothers: 41 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, nearly 10 percent of all children.

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

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.

Youth employment: lowest level in more than 60 years.

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

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.

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 women.

People age 50 and over at risk of hunger every day: 9 million.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Impact of public policy, 1964–73: poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

Quote of the Week

“Judge-and-punish-the-poor is not a demonstration of American values. It is, simply, mean. My parents saved me and then—on the dole, in the classroom or crying deep in the night, in love with a little boy who needed everything I could give him—I learned to save myself. I do not apologize. I was not ashamed then; I am not ashamed now. I was, and will always be, profoundly grateful.”
                                         —Larkin Warren, “I Was a Welfare Mother

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

#TalkPoverty: Tim Casey and Lisalyn Jacobs's Questions for Obama and Romney

This is the fourth post in TheNation.com's #TalkPoverty series—an effort to push a deeper conversation about poverty into the mainstream political debate. The series profiles people working on poverty-related issues and lays out the questions they want President Obama and Governor Romney to answer. You can read the first posts here, here and here.

When Tim Casey was 6 years old, his father was committed to a psychiatric hospital. His mother suddenly found herself alone with four kids. 

“For the next several years we survived on welfare,” Casey tells me. “And I learned from personal experience how inadequate the welfare system was, and how inhumanely it was administered. I had a real interest as I grew older in trying to do something about that.”

That interest resulted in Casey doing antipoverty work for the past thirty-five years—first in legal aid where he focused on welfare issues, and then coordinating the New York City Welfare Reform Network, where he advocated for adequate and just welfare policies at the city, state and federal levels.

Today, he serves as a senior staff attorney for Legal Momentum, the oldest organization advocating on behalf of the legal rights of women and girls in the United States. He came to the organization in 2001 because it had always defined poverty as “a women’s issue” and was somewhat ahead of the game in that regard.

“There is often a failure to recognize that the poverty rate for women has always been much higher than it is for men,” says Casey. “And instead of proposing policies to address the gender poverty gap, women are blamed, told that they should marry or that they shouldn’t have kids. What we should be doing is looking at structural policies in the US that result in higher poverty rates for both women and men as compared to other high-income countries.”

Casey says those structural problems include the lack of a nationally mandated minimum benefit level for cash assistance (TANF)—instead it’s left to the discretion of states, so that we literally have fifty different systems; the percentage of workers employed in low-wage jobs is much higher than in other high-income countries; and there is an absence of subsidized childcare compared to peer countries as well—a particularly difficult barrier for single mothers in the United States who want to work. (Federal assistance for childcare currently reaches about one in seven of those who are eligible.)

“There’s no reason we have to have the high poverty rates we do,” says Casey. “We know looking elsewhere that there are government policies that are effective in reducing poverty.”

Casey works on both litigation and legal advocacy, as well as developing policy reports. One colleague he works closely with is Legal Momentum’s vice president for government relations, Lisalyn Jacobs

For the past twenty-two years, Jacobs has worked on antipoverty and civil rights issues, particularly as they intersect with race and gender. Jacobs says she is drawn to the kind of work that speaks to her identity as a woman of color—including five years at the US Department of Justice, where she helped implement the Violence Against Women Act, immigration-related provisions of the 1996 welfare reform law, and affirmative action; as well as her current efforts to move a stalled Violence Against Women Act through Congress.

She also says her work is “very informed” by her “upbringing as a person of faith.” She describes herself as a “preacher’s kid”—her father was a parish priest and later a chaplain at St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital in Washington, DC, where Jacobs spent summers volunteering as a youth. Her father was also was very active in civil rights causes in the 1960s, including voter registration in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and joined the March on Washington as well.

“So I have a certain historical attachment to rights work and advocacy, and working from some collective standpoint to try to improve circumstances of various communities,” says Jacobs.

As an example of faith influencing her work, she cites her Congressional testimony regarding the marriage promotion efforts of the Bush administration that were part of the 2003 reauthorization of the TANF program.

“I testified that as a person of faith I understood the importance of seeing to people’s basic needs,” says Jacobs. "That Jesus said, 'If you love me, feed my sheep.' But here we were considering $1.5 billion for unproven marriage promotion, when we knew there wasn’t enough funding going into the basic underpinnings of the TANF program—people weren’t able to get enough basic sustenance for themselves and their families; or the training and education needed in order to support themselves and their families."

The benefit levels and how people are treated have been so neglected that Casey thinks the welfare system is now not much better than it was when he was a kid in the 1950s. 

“In the late 1960s and early ’70s welfare became much more adequate, and the administration of it became much less inhumane,” says Casey. “But since then things have really gone backwards. Especially since welfare reform was enacted in 1996, things basically get worse every year.”

Casey says that now people are “always scrambling to meet some basic need—putting food on the table for your kids, or getting them a winter coat, or paying a utility bill to avoid a shut off.”

Even worse, he says, they are demonized for seeking assistance. 

“Instead of recognizing that most adults who turn to welfare are either working for low-wages, or are temporarily unemployed because there are no jobs, or they need childcare to work and there’s no safe and affordable childcare available,” Casey says, “they are demonized as people who don’t want to work and aren’t good parents, and that also often results in their being treated horribly within the welfare system.”

Jacobs understands why the focus of the presidential campaign has been almost exclusively on the middle class—whom she calls “the most recent people seated at the table of pain in the last four years.” She notes, however, that there were “tens of millions of people experiencing that very kind of difficulty getting a job or keeping a job, or being able to support themselves and their families, before the country went into a recession.”

Casey also says there is “a point that bears constant repeating”—during this presidential campaign and beyond—for anyone who cares about poverty.

“The single mother poverty rate in this country is exceptionally high compared to the single mother poverty rate in other high-income countries,” he says. “And that’s primarily because our social welfare system is much less adequate.”

Here are Casey and Jacobs’s questions for President Obama and Governor Romney:

1) Former President Clinton spoke powerfully at the DNC Convention about the need to stem poverty in this country: “Poverty… restrict[s] growth. When you stifle human potential it hurts us all.” But the cash welfare program (TANF) hasn’t functioned as an adequate safety net—in essence it is stifling human potential, and by extension a robust economic recovery: the program rolls have stagnated or dropped, even as the need for such support rose; and available benefits are significantly below the poverty line. What are your plans for improving the responsiveness of TANF, and making sure that people eligible for TANF are not discouraged from applying? And what will you do to ensure that those receiving benefits—who are able to work—can receive adequate training so that they are able to transition effectively and permanently into the workforce?

2) Food stamps (SNAP) enrolls 90 percent of eligible children but cash welfare (TANF) only 40 percent. What would you do to increase eligible children’s enrollment rate in TANF?

3) Poverty rates are 30 percent higher for women than men. What would you do to reduce the gender poverty gap?

4) Despite their above average employment rates compared to single mothers in other high income countries, single mothers in the US have higher poverty rates. What would you do to reduce poverty for single mothers and their children?

5) One-fifth of US children are poor. Do you agree that national policy should assure an above-poverty income to all children whose parents are willing to work?

6) As you consider changes to the tax code, what types of tax credits do you envision creating, retaining or eliminating that focus on low-income families (e.g., earned income tax credit, child tax credit, low income housing tax credit, others)?

If you like this post, please tweet using #TalkPoverty and let @MittRomney and @BarackObama know you want answers. Also, take a moment to check out the new #TalkPoverty at the Debates campaign. 

This Week in Poverty: Poverty Tour 2.0 Hits the Battleground States (VIDEO)

Last week, I wrote about “Poverty Tour 2.0,” the latest effort from broadcaster Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West to elevate poverty as a pressing national issue and push a substantive conversation about it into the presidential campaign. The tour visits four battleground states this week, including Virginia, where it arrived yesterday at TC Williams High School in Alexandria, just outside of the nation’s capital.

I had the opportunity to attend the event—a town hall meeting that included not only Smiley and Dr. West but inspiring interviews with iconic figures like Peter Edelman, Dolores Huerta, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader, and other passionate antipoverty advocates and thinkers.

I also spoke with some of the high school students in attendance about their own experiences dealing with poverty.

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

Welcome to 'Poverty Day': The One Time of Year When America Cares About the Poor

Yesterday, the US Census Bureau released its annual data on income, poverty and health insurance coverage. This kicks off the one week every year when we can absolutely count on a veritable frenzy of stories and headlines about poverty. The other fifty-one weeks? Not so much.

As Hannah Mathews, director of childcare and early education at CLASP, puts it, “As is tradition on ‘poverty day,’ journalists, advocates and politicians alike will express outrage for the dismal poverty statistics…. But by week’s end, it’s far too likely that the poor among us will have fallen out of consciousness.”

Nevertheless, there were definitely some great materials released by antipoverty advocates and experts yesterday that deserve attention. Below is just a small sample.

While the headlines will read that the poverty rate held steady, the most important takeaways for me from the new data are these: we need to stop looking at poverty as a separate phenomenon from the rest of the economy—an economy with a proliferation of low-wage jobs and a weak and inequitable recovery; and we especially need to stop viewing those who live in poverty as suffering from some sort of character flaw, as opposed to paying the heaviest price for our skewed priorities and choices.

Finally, a quick glance at the numbers emphasizes just how easily poverty could grow significantly worse with some of the cuts to the safety net that are currently being proposed.

Friday, I’ll post a video of interviews with people for whom the new Census numbers are not newsworthy at all—because they are living in poverty, and don’t need the data in order to explain just how difficult it is to rise out of it. Until then, here are some key numbers that describe poverty in American in 2011:

Poverty remained flat: 46.2 million people—15 percent of the population—lived on less than $23,021 annually for a family of four.

Child poverty remained flat: 16.1 million children—22 percent of all children—lived in poverty, including over 37 percent of African-American children.

Children under age 5 in poverty: Over 5 million—25 percent of all children under age 5—including over 42 percent of African-American children, and 36 percent of Latino children in that age group.

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

Income inequality: Incomes fell for the bottom four-fifths of US households, rising only for the top one-fifth.

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 women.

Change in average household income, middle 20 percent: -$876, or -1.7 percent

Change in average household income, top 5 percent: +$15,184, or +5.1 percent

Change in median income for full-time, year-round workers: -2.5 percent

Income quintile with largest growth in number of full-time, year-round workers: bottom 20 percent, with a 17.3 percent increase in FTYR workers.

Unemployment insurance (UI) income: fell by $36 billion (25 percent), due in part to benefits declining as Recovery Act provisions expired.

Unemployment insurance, 2010: lifted 3.2 million people out of poverty.

Unemployment insurance, 2011: lifted 2.3 million people out of poverty.

Federal UI benefits scheduled to end entirely, for everybody: December 31, 2012

Number and percentage of uninsured Americans: fell by 1.3 million, from 16.3 percent to 15.7 percent, largest annual improvement since 1999; 40 percent of that decline is attributable to persons ages 19–25, as a result of Affordable Care Act allowing individuals to remain on their parents’ policies until age 26.

Earned Income Tax Credit: would have lifted 5.7 million people—including 3.1 million children—out of poverty if counted in the poverty measure, bringing poverty rate under 13.2 percent.

SNAP (food stamps): would have lifted 3.9 million people—including 1.7 million children—out of poverty if counted in the poverty measure, bringing poverty rate down to 13.7 percent.

You can e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.

Why Native Women Need VAWA (VIDEO)

In July, I reported that Republican House leadership is blocking reauthorization of a strengthened Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). No one needs this bill passed more desperately than Native women: one in three will be raped in their lifetimes; two in five are victims of domestic violence; six in ten will be physically assaulted; and on some reservations, the murder rate of Native women is ten times the national average.

The Senate version of VAWA includes new protections for Native women by allowing tribal court systems to prosecute domestic violence abusers—whether the abuser is native or not. Currently, most sexual assaults and domestic violence crimes on Native lands go unpunished, particularly by non-Native abusers.

The Indian Law Resource Center has released a new short video to educate people on the issue and urge lawmakers to take action now. Check it out below, and take action here. Congress needs to know that even during election season, people still care about this issue and are paying attention.

This Week in Poverty: ‘Beating the Drum About Poverty’ (and Obama’s Nomination Speech)

In a recent column, Bill Moyers and Michael Winship wrote, “When it comes to our ‘out of sight, out of mind’ population of the poor, you have to think we can help reduce their number, ease the suffering, and speak out, with whatever means at hand, on their behalf and against those who would prefer they remain invisible. Speak out: that means you and me, and yes, Mr. President, you, too.”

In the past year, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have done more on the national stage to seek out and speak out on behalf of people living in poverty than broadcaster Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West, professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary. Next week, September 12–15, they will go on the road for their second poverty tour in a year, which they have dubbed “Poverty Tour 2.0.”

In August 2011, Smiley and West embarked on an eleven-state, eighteen-city “Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience”; that was followed in October by a week-long series about the tour broadcasted on both the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and Public Radio International (PRI). In January 2012, they collaborated with Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs on a study examining the impact of the recession on people living in or near-poverty; the next day, Smiley moderated a panel live on C-SPAN—“Remaking America: from Poverty to Prosperity”—which included Dr. West, author and Nation contributor Barbara Ehrenreich, filmmaker Michael Moore and others. In March, Smiley moderated a nationally broadcasted panel of women who talked about the impact of poverty on women and children in America. Finally, Smiley and West co-authored The Rich and The Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. It was released in April and peaked at #7 on the New York Times Best Sellers List.

All of this work is in addition to their coverage of poverty-related issues on their nationally syndicated weekly public radio show, Smiley & West.

In my mind, Smiley and West’s work is representative of the kind of constancy and singular focus that’s needed if we are to preserve the advances this nation has made in the fight against poverty, and take new and greater steps forward in the months and years ahead.

“It’s all about making sure we keep on beating the drum about poverty,” Smiley told me when I spoke with him and Dr. West about the upcoming tour. “We want to do our part to make it a priority in this campaign and beyond this campaign.”

The poverty tour that begins next week will visit four battleground states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida.

“We know where Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are essentially going to take up residency between now and Election Day,” said Smiley. “We know where the energy is going to be and the concentration of media is going to be, and that’s where we’re going.”

At each venue, Smiley and West will interview elected officials, policy experts, faith leaders and authors—“people who have solutions to offer,” said Smiley.

“But most importantly we’re going to be talking to poor people—to folks in the audience who will share their stories of enduring, of trying to survive, of overcoming poverty,” he said.

They will also focus on pushing the presidential debate moderators to make poverty a central issue in the upcoming debates.

“The words ‘poor’ and ‘poverty’ did not come up one time in the 2008 presidential and vice presidential debates,” said Smiley. “We’re going to be hitting the moderators really hard in advance of the first debate on October 3.”

The tour is scheduled intentionally to coincide with the release of new Census Bureau statistics on poverty.

“These new numbers will underscore what we’ve been saying for a while now—poverty is the new American norm,” said Smiley. “There are now one out of two of us—150 million of us—either in or near poverty. Politicians can’t simply continue to be quiet on this issue.”

“This is all about trying to lift the veil off poor people and the stereotypes of poor people—attempts to demonize and dehumanize poor people—to allow people to see them for the human beings and fellow citizens that they are,” said West. “The prevailing public discourse describes poverty as a matter of bad habits and bad judgment, instead of seeing the lack of opportunity, lack of jobs with a living wage, lack of access to quality education and quality housing. We come back to these issues over and over and over again. How do we instead stay in contact with the humanity and creativity of poor people?”

West and Smiley aren’t without their detractors, and both expressed concern that personal attacks will get in the way of the work they hope to accomplish through this tour.

“Get the focus off of us, and put the limelight on our precious fellow citizens who don’t have access to a decent job, decent housing, and decent healthcare,” said West. “I think that’s a challenge for every journalist today, because the problem right now is we live in a country where conservative discourse has made it fashionable to be indifferent or have contempt toward poor people. If you focus on the messenger then you never have to confront the suffering and the misery of the poor people that we are highlighting with our work.”

Smiley also noted the negative reactions they have received for their critique of President Obama.

“I get sick and tired of people who believe that just because you’re pushing the president, that somehow you’re hating on him, or you’re aiding and abetting the other side,” said Smiley. “How do you push a president? You can’t push him by being silent. You can’t push him by not pressuring him on the things that really matter. We are not going to stop pushing, but it doesn’t mean that we hate Barack Obama.”

“What we hate is the contempt and indifference toward poor people that is found in both Republican and Democratic parties—less so in the Democrats, but both parties suffer from it,” West added. “So this issue of class, of poverty, of economic injustice is one that we will continue to highlight in a very serious way.”

Smiley and West hope that their effort will play a role in electing a president who can no longer afford to ignore poverty—that so many people will demand action, he will use the bully pulpit to make the eradication of poverty a priority.

“We need to force poverty onto the agenda,” said Smiley. “And timing is everything.”

“Very Low Food Security” on the Rise

On Wednesday, the United States Department of Agriculture released its annual report on food security. The data show that more than 50 million Americans—one out of every six households—were “food insecure,” meaning they “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.” That means there was no statistically significant change in the overall number of food insecure households between 2010 and 2011.

However, the number of households with “very low food security”—those with members that reduced their food intake or skipped meals at times due to limited resources—rose from 5.4 percent to 5.7 percent of all households in 2011. That number represents 6.8 million households, or more than 16.8 million people, and is the same level of very low food security that was evident at the height of the recession in 2008 and 2009.

Children in particular are struggling with hunger. More than 16 million children live in food insecure households, including nearly one-fourth (24.5 percent) of all children under age 6.

Dr. Mariana Chilton, associate professor at Drexel University School of Public Health and co-principal investigator for Children’s HealthWatch, notes the impact on young children who go without food as they lay the foundation for their health; cognitive, social and emotional development; and future potential.

“There are lifelong implications,” said Chilton. “Children in food insecure households have more health problems, are more likely to be hospitalized and have developmental delays. Young kids who are food insecure may arrive at kindergarten unprepared and never catch up with their peers.”

Tianna Gaines-Turner, a member of Witnesses to Hunger—a project in which people living in poverty use photographs and testimonials to advocate for change at the local, state and national levels—said she isn’t at all surprised by the numbers. She operates a peer mentoring program in Philadelphia two days a week, helping people get the food, energy assistance, healthcare, school supplies, community legal services and housing services they need.

“I see more and more people in need of assistance with purchasing food,” Gaines-Turner said. “Many come in with their children who wake up in the morning hungry and go to bed with their stomachs growling.”

“What these numbers show is that we have malnutrition right here in America,” said Chilton. “The people suffering from hunger are our neighbors—in the suburbs, cities and rural areas. We can do better as a nation.”

She noted, however, that the summer drought is expected to drive food prices higher, there is no national plan to end hunger, and the strongest defense against hunger—food stamps (or, SNAP)—is under attack in Congress.

Indeed, the Senate version of the Farm Bill would cut more than $4 billion over ten years from SNAP, reducing benefits for an estimated 500,000 households. The House version would make these same cuts and also end benefits totally for a minimum of 1.8 million people, cutting the program by $16 billion.

The good news is that the American people seem to be ahead of the politicians when it comes to SNAP and supporting the nearly 47 million people who benefit from it. A new poll released by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) indicates overwhelming majorities are opposed to SNAP cuts, with 79 percent of respondents supporting more (55 percent) or about the same federal spending to address hunger. Fully 75 percent feel that cutting food assistance is the wrong way to reduce federal spending. According to FRAC, opposition to SNAP cuts was high among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

“[The] food insecurity data and polling data show that proposals for SNAP cuts are a ‘two-fer’ of wrong thinking,” said FRAC President Jim Weill. “A bad policy idea and a very unpopular idea. Americans…believe government should—and must—do more to address hunger.”

Here are a few things you can do to fight hunger and protect food stamps and other nutrition programs: you can advocate to protect SNAP in the final Farm Bill; join the NoKidHungry campaign which focuses particularly on protecting nutrition programs that serve at-risk children and families; support and follow Witnesses to Hunger—the experts who know poverty and hunger firsthand; and e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com about other campaigns people should know about.

That’s by no means an exhaustive list. And I look forward to your help as we stay on top of this epidemic to help ensure that no one—families, single adults, working, not working, homeless, housed, seniors, middle-aged, young—goes hungry.

A Note on President Obama’s Nomination Speech

There is no question that from an antipoverty perspective, President Obama’s speech tonight was thin. If you expected otherwise, I don’t think you’ve been paying attention. This is a pragmatic president trying to get re-elected. He set out to do what he had to do, and—though I’m no expert—he probably accomplished it.

That he did better than the other guy in addressing some issues of concern to lower-income people surely isn’t enough. But I suggest we stop trying to “read” Obama—does he care about poverty, or doesn’t he care about poverty? Will he be bold, or won’t he be bold? Is he this, that, or the other thing?

It’s a waste of time and it’s a waste of energy.

In my opinion there is one line from the president’s speech tonight that those of us who care about eradicating poverty can and should take to heart: “Only you have the power to move us forward.”

My two cents is that we take a moment to recommit ourselves to this fight: that we will educate and agitate; we will yearn, push, and strive; we will not be complacent, nor will we be silent in order to make potential allies feel comfortable.

We will do everything we can—as Tavis Smiley said in the above interview—to force poverty onto the national agenda. We will be relentless.

I hope that our effort culminates in Barack Obama embracing this cause. But if it doesn’t, so be it. It’s not about him—never was—and that can’t stop us.

Get Involved

A National Standard for Paid Sick Days
For Organizations: SAVE Vital Services and Prevent Rising Poverty
For Individuals: SAVE Vital Services and Prevent Rising Poverty
Economic Hardship Reporting Project
ThanksGivingAmerica

Clips and Other Resources

Domestic Workers Rights Expand in California But Challenges Loom,” Sheila Bapat

The Good Jobs Challenge,” Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Deadly Poverty,” Steve Bogira

Obama’s Acceptance Speech,” Steve Bogira

Fair Food Program helps end the use of slavery in the tomato fields,” Holly Burkhalter

Hanging in the Balance: A Head Start for Low-Income Kids,” (VIDEO) Center for American Progress

To Fight Hunger… Partner with Those who Experience it First-Hand,” Mariana Chilton

NewtAid at 16: The Failure of TANF and Conservative Social Policy,” Shawn Fremstad

The NYT and the ‘Disorganized Single Mother’ Meme,” Shawn Fremstad

Should Kids Go to Jail for Skipping School?” Annette Fuentes

‘Patients Over Politics’ Bus Tour,” Marissa Gallo

Can the Black Middle Class Survive?” Steven Gray

How We Can Bring Millions of Americans to the Middle Class,” Bob Herbert

Locked Up Without a Key in New Orleans,” Karen Houppert

Uncensored: American Family Experiences with Poverty and Homelessness,” Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness

Low-Interest Locusts,” David Cay Johnston

Maine Sues to Roll Back Medicaid Coverage,” Ezra Klein

Economic Mobility in Chicago’s Projects,” Sylvester Monroe

Invisible Americans Get the Silent Treatment,” Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Majority of New Jobs Pay Low Wages, Study Finds,” Catherine Rampell

The GOP’s Welfare Lie,” Betsy Reed

Senior Poverty: Food Insecurity Rising Among Older Americans,” Laura Rowley

Making Child Care More Affordable and Accessible,” Heather Sandstrom

Santorum’s Right: Better Access to Education is a Key Part of Welfare Reform,” Liz Schott

New Hunger Data Shows a Generation at Risk,” Bill Shore

Bringing the Poor to the Table,” Katherine Wright

Studies and Briefs

Bad Jobs on the Rise,” John Schmitt and Janelle Jones, Center for Economic and Policy Research. Compared to the end of the 1970s, the typical worker today is almost twice as likely to have a four-year college degree, is about seven years older, works with approximately 50 percent more physical capital and uses much more advanced technology. Despite these trends, the share of “bad jobs”—defined as one earning less than $37,000 per year, without employer-provided health insurance and lacking any retirement plan—has grown since 1979. In 2010, 24 percent of the workforce had a “bad job,” up from 18 percent in 1979. The report co-authors point to the fall in the inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage, the decline in union representation, trade deals and high unemployment as some of the key factors reducing the bargaining power of workers.

Strategies to Help Low-Wage Workers Advance,” MDRC. This study looked at a pilot project designed to help low-wage workers access “work supports”—including food stamps, child care subsidies and healthcare—as well as career coaching and access to skills training. All of these services were offered at a single center at three different sites across the country. With assessments at Year 3 and Year 4, MDRC found that the program increased workers’ receipt of work supports, and—in the two sites that that made funding available for training—increased the receipt of certificates and licenses as well as workers’ earnings in the third year. (Though those gains had faded somewhat at one of the sites by Year 4.) The study concludes that access to training is a critical part of any advancement strategy for low-income workers, but the earnings gains might be short-lived if it’s not the right kind of training and there aren’t opportunities for additional professional development.

When Unemployment Insurance Runs Out: An Action Plan to Help Long-Term Unemployed, National Employment Law Project. More than 6 million long-term unemployed people have already reached the end of their jobless benefits; 2 million more will be cut off at the end of December. This report looks at how some states have connected workers to social services and reemployment services. It calls for a coordinated federal response to work with state governments, as well as the nonprofit and private sectors, to pursue job creation strategies and maximize benefits for this hard-hit population.

Cutting Programs for Low-Income People Especially Hurts Women and Their Families, National Women’s Law Center. Women who head families and elderly women are especially reliant on programs for low-income people. Here is a look at some of the most vital programs that must be protected to ensure that any deal on spending reduction doesn’t increase poverty.

…Welfare Is Not What You Think It Is,” Heather Hahn, Olivia Golden, and Alexandra Stanczyk, Urban Institute. Most people think TANF is a cash assistance program—it isn’t. Only 30 percent of the TANF block grant goes towards cash assistance for families. All fifty states make greatly divergent policy decisions on how to use their TANF block grant, with vastly different implications for low-income families. This paper examines the unique TANF programs in California, Florida, Michigan, Texas and Washington, including how each one responded to the recession.

Vital Statistics

50 percent of the jobs in the US pay less than $34,000 a year (Economic Policy Institute).

25 percent of the jobs in the US pay below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually (Economic Policy Institute).

US poverty (less than $22,314 for a family of four): 46 million people, 15.1 percent of population.

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 35 percent of Latino children.

Number of children in poverty receiving cash aid: one in five.

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population. Up from 12.6 million in 2000.

Increase in deep poverty, 1976-2010: doubled—3.3 percent of population to 6.7 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.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Twice the poverty level (less than $44,700 for a family of four): 103 million people, roughly 1 in 3 Americans.

Quote of the Week

“Republicans are even bringing up poverty, because of a longstanding concern for the poor that began two weeks ago.”
     —Steve Bogira, senior writer, Chicago Reader

 

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

Syndicate content