Thinking Big on Poverty

Thinking Big on Poverty

We should be a country that does big things—like cut poverty in half in the next decade.


“A dangerous myth that permeates our national narrative is that ‘the poor will always be among us’ and that there is little government can do to systematically reduce poverty. History shows this belief to be false.”
—“Restoring Shared Prosperity” report, October 2011

“I believe what the Occupy Wall Street movement has done is a patriotic thing by putting wage inequality back on the front and center stage,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, delivering a keynote address at the Center for American Progress last week (streamed online here). The occasion was the Half in Ten campaign’s release of its inaugural report that starts the clock ticking on its aggressive goal to cut poverty in half in ten years nationally and in every state. Solis spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of advocates, activists, scholars and reporters.

“You think big, and you challenge America’s leaders to do big things,” said Solis, noting that the goal of cutting poverty in half was nearly achieved in the decade following President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty forty-seven years ago. “Cutting the poverty rate in half in ten years is something that I too believe we can do. Providing a ladder out of poverty has been my life’s work.”

The new report offers a comprehensive look at a record 46.2 million people living in poverty in the nation today, and lays out the key indicators within four categories that Half in Ten will track to measure progress towards its goal: overall poverty in the United States, more good jobs, strengthening families and communities and family economic security.

It ranks states according to each of the indicators, and an interactive website emphasizes the state’s bottom-ranking data to focus attention on the areas that need the most work. The report also includes a call to action which outlines a set of policies that would make a real difference in people’s lives right now.

The speakers on hand—including Secretary Solis, former SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, author Barbara Ehrenreich and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights President and CEO Wade Henderson—recognize the enormity of the task: nearly one in six Americans now live below the poverty line of $22,000 for a family of four, including over 20 percent of all kids. The fact that the GOP is hostile to the federal government doing anything other than cutting taxes, spending on defense and prosecuting undocumented workers only makes the job harder.

But there was also a sense of hope among the speakers that there is increasingly a recognition of a common struggle in our inequitable economy—whether one is a homeless parent, a college graduate with huge debt, or a 50-year-old who was laid off and sees few if any prospects for a decent job. In fact, as the report points out, more than one in three Americans now lives on less than $44,700 annually for a family of four. That makes it pretty tough—sometimes impossible—to afford the basics like housing, healthcare, food and education.That’s why more and more people are turning to the safety net who never imagined they would need to.

“For so long poverty has been isolated as a problem of someone else—it’s the people who don’t work hard, or make bad lifestyle decisions, or something,” said Ehrenreich. “You can’t do that anymore at this moment. So we have to talk about how to seize this moment.”

Burger and others agreed that OWS is “a spark” but that inside the beltway elites and some progressive groups should stop harping on how to help them organize, or develop a set of demands, etc. “We should not think that we are going to take over Occupy Wall Street. They should be what they want to be,” said Burger. “We all belong to organizations, we have members. Can we organize us as opposed to trying to organize them? They’ve already organized them.”

There was agreement that this report, along with its policy recommendations, can help arm organizers and activists in their efforts to mobilize people, pressure politicians to do the right thing and hold them accountable when they don’t.

“[This report helps] people realize they aren’t the only ones suffering,” said Burger. “Information like this—getting it out so that people know and can add their stories and add their faces to it—is the kind of stuff that sparks movements. I’m hoping that OWS is the first spark, and that there become lots of sparks, and that we feed those sparks with information, with courage, with real determination to not let the other side block us.”

“This report will be used loud and proud,” said Tara Marks, co-director of Just Harvest in Pittsburgh, a membership organization that organizes, advocates and provides direct service towards the elimination of poverty and hunger. “This is the information I need to get back to our clients so they can advocate for themselves. So I can say, ‘You are part of this army. And we need you to fight, and we’re here to supply you. Let’s go get it done.’ And then showing up at these Senators’ and policymakers’ offices and saying ‘enough is enough.’ ”

Among the most powerful findings by Half in Ten is that the poverty rate of over 40 percent for single-mother families drops to just 14 percent when she has a full-time, year round job. This shows the importance of policies like paid leave (80 percent of low-wage workers have no paid sick leave), flexible workplaces and safe and reliable childcare instead of waiting lists across the country. Further, only 4 percent of households with more than one earner are in poverty, as compared to 24 percent with a single earner. While conservatives seize on that data to say that marriage is the way out of poverty, progressives understand that it isn’t the only path, and that supporting multiple incomes in a number of forms is crucial. For example, summer and year-round programs aimed at connecting disadvantaged youth to education and work experience are critical, as are subsidized training and employment services—especially at a moment when approximately 15 percent of youth ages 16 to 24 are neither working nor enrolled in school. Solis said she anticipates a vote next month on a provision of President Obama’s American Jobs Act that would create a $3.5 billion fund for job programs targeting disadvantaged communities, including $1.5 billion for youth employment.

She also honed in on the gender wage gap discussed in the report, increasingly significant as women now represent a majority of breadwinners or co-breadwinners.

“Today in America, women are paid an average of eighty cents for every dollar paid to men. For African-American women, it’s seventy cents on the dollar. For Latina women, it’s sixty cents on the dollar,” she said. “According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, if we closed the pay gap between men and women, we could cut in half the number of children living in poverty.”

Finally, the report pairs familiar data on the unemployment crisis with more comprehensive data on job quality, tracking the number of workers without paid sick leave, retirement benefits and family supporting wages to give a more complete picture of the working poor and workers barely hanging on to the bottom rungs of the middle class.

“Overall, the report connects information on the number of people struggling to move out of poverty with the necessary policy tools to increase opportunity such as more good jobs, access to financial institutions to save for the future and affordable housing to name a few,” Desmond Brown, consultant to Half in Ten, told me. “Going forward, the campaign will compare next year’s data to this year’s baseline to track our progress in restoring shared prosperity and rebuilding the middle class.”

But Half in Ten’s latest work, and the people who will use it to organize and push the country in a more humane direction, are also part of a much larger fight. 

“We’re in a fight for the heart and soul of this country,” said Solis. “It’s a fight about whether we’re a country still willing to do big things.”

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