At 37 years of age, Deborah Glover says she had lived a middle-class life and never knew poverty. That all changed when she had a car accident, and as a single mother with three kids she could no longer afford to make ends meet.
“I’d never lived in poverty before that time,” she told an audience of 300 at the recent Connecticut Association for Community Action’s (CAFCA) annual conference, Ending Child Poverty: Investing in Our Future. “I had ignored poverty all together.”
When she was advised to go to a shelter to get the help she needed, she responded, “What the hell is a shelter?”
But Glover did go. And she received treatment for a substance abuse problem she had developed as a result of the daily pain she suffered from the car wreck. She also received mental health services, through which she obtained part-time work, and said that was where her recovery started. She learned that even with these challenges she could work again, could own a home, could further her education.
“It was very difficult, living at the poverty level. And even though it didn’t last long it seemed like forever,” she said.
Glover now owns her own house and works in the shelter where she once dreaded going. She said most clients just need people to listen to them. “We need these programs,” she said. “We need these programs to help people be aware, to get the higher learning that they need, to get their health…. A lot of people that are in crisis don’t understand what we as able people can do.”
Glover was on a panel of four women – three of whom now work to eradicate poverty – who talked about their way out of poverty. She and the other panelists broke down the barriers between what Mark Greenberg, Executive Director of the Poverty Task Force at the Center for American Progress (CAP), described in his keynote address as “an ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude towards poverty. ‘Them’ being people living in poverty, and ‘us’ being unaffected by it. If we move from ‘them’ to ‘us’ it would be transformative for our country.” With 55 percent of the nation now looking for the government to “do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people,” certainly this kind of transformation would be an important step towards changing the way we battle poverty.
Connecticut is a key state in an emerging anti-poverty movement. It passed landmark legislation in 2004 that mandated a 50 percent reduction in child poverty by 2014, and it has served as a model for similar efforts in Vermont, Minnesota, and Delaware. But the state has made little movement towards its goal. In fact, the child poverty rate has risen from 10.1 percent to 10.7 percent since 2004 – nationwide, 4.9 million more people are living in poverty than in 2000, including 1.2 million more children. Connecticut is the second richest state in the richest nation in the world, and advocates are frustrated with what they see as a lack of political will – a point activists across the nation would second in describing the conditions in their respective states and at the federal level.
The federal poverty level is an unjustifiably flawed measure – $20,614 in income for a family of four. If one measures poverty as the ability to actually pay for basic needs in a state – an income two to three times the federal poverty level is needed and the child poverty rate in Connecticut jumps to 1 in 4 kids. “Over 206,000 Connecticut kids live in low-income or poor households,” said Juliet Manalan, Government and Public Relations staffer for CAFCA. And Mark Winne, former director of Hartford Food System wrote in the Washington Post that 275,000 Connecticut residents are hungry or “food insecure.”
One reason Connecticut has failed to make the progress advocates hoped is because Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell maneuvered to kill the state Earned Income Tax Credit (a refundable tax credit that supplements the earnings of low- and moderate-income workers) for the second year in a row. State Representative Mary Mushinsky, who introduced the legislation mandating the 50 percent child poverty reduction, said she had been counting on EITC passage to get the state 60 percent of the way towards its goal. State Senator Jonathan Harris, Chair of the Human Services Committee, vowed at the conference to bring the EITC back next session. Harris is also focused on adult literacy, saying that if parents can’t navigate the system – read, write, and communicate – kids won’t have the parent-advocates they need.
But Gwen Eaddy-Samuel said when she was living on $62 per week she wasn’t thinking about getting her education, or getting her kids into pre-school, she was “living in the moment and just trying to survive…. As much as you’re trying to get to [point] B… A and C are calling you today,” she said.
Only when Eaddy-Samuel got involved with the Community Renewal Team Head Start program, and learned about empowerment and being more involved in her child’s life, “something inside me started clicking.” She began to talk to people about the domestic violence that she had grown up with and realized that she “wasn’t in this alone.” She had been taught during her childhood that “what goes on in the home, stays in the home, you keep it to yourself.” And now she found herself with an abusive boyfriend whom she stayed with – partly because they had three kids and she didn’t want people to think of her as the stereotypical single mother.
But even though Head Start made her feel like part of an important community, and led her to get out of a violent relationship and broaden her outlook on her life, Eaddy-Samuel ran into a problem that was repeatedly discussed at the Connecticut conference. When she looked for help obtaining other basic services she was led in many different directions. “Oh my God, you pick up the phone and you dial one number. And they tell you to call somewhere else, and then another place. And you’re using the pre-paid phone card ’cause your phone was shut off, or you’re using your neighbor’s phone. And then you finally drive to the YMCA where you’re supposed to get such and such… and it turns out it’s not at the Y, it’s at so-and-so agency. A lot of times people just give up.”
Eaddy-Samuel learned to do her own research, asking herself, “How can I get my needs met? How bad do I want [the services]? I wanted it very bad because I wanted to be free.”
As she was able to find help and better cope with her circumstances, Eaddy-Samuel was eventually able to go back to school and graduated last year with a BA in Human Services. She has taken the LSATs and plans to attend law school (“If I don’t know my rights anyone can tell me anything,” she says.) Meanwhile, she works for a group called Connecticut Parent Power that focuses on organizing parents to advocate for their children’s needs. And now that she’s on the other end – providing services to those in crisis – she sees a whole other set of problems with addressing poverty. She commented in a recent phone interview, “Yes, we’ve had cuts in services and needed staff in the state. And it’s inexcusable with the wealth and resources in this state. And, yes, everyone’s overworked. But we’ve also got turf wars, and too many egos, and some duplicating, overlapping, competing services. A person in crisis shouldn’t have to deal with that on top of everything else…. If nothing else, just treat each person as a human being.” As she told the audience at the conference, “We have 2,055 days to meet our goal of reducing child poverty by 50 percent. This is a community, legislative, cohesive effort on all our parts. I see my link in the chain, I hope each one of you see your link in the chain as well.”
It’s clear that even for the committed advocates attending this conference – including politicians, agency workers, foundation leaders, labor representatives, faith-based groups, and business people – the obstacles to forming the kind of chain Eaddy-Samuel describes are formidable. Professor Fred Cartensen, Director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, says it took three years just to convince the state that it needed a state data center that linked to the US Census Bureau (for five years, it was the only state in the country that didn’t do so), even though it was impossible to have practical conversations about poverty issues without the data.
Cartensen said that now state officials are beginning to see that “the trend lines in the state are not encouraging”: over the next 25 years, elderly population is expected to increase by 70 percent; K-12 population decrease by 80,000; working-age population decrease by 40,000; college graduates in the workforce decline by 10 percent; and the population of lower-income minority people will rise in the “core cities.” Cartensen said that these outcomes can be improved – it’s once again a matter of political will. He listed investments in: affordable housing (“instability of housing is one of the most debilitating aspects of lower-income kids’ school performance… when a child changes schools, one-half a year of progress is lost on average”); childcare (“it improves every indicator – high school performance, college, marriage, employment”); healthcare – especially Connecticut’s S-CHIP program (“healthy people work all day, and kids can learn and focus. It’s not a cost, it’s an investment – clearly all economics support it”); and the community college system (“All of the panelists who spoke on their rise from poverty called on the community college system, yet North Carolina spends three times greater per capita on its system than Connecticut”).
Other key ideas discussed at the conference included job-training for lower-income people to help rebuild the infrastructure; supporting candidates for office who understand poverty and will make it a key issue; helping the faith community expand from benevolent services such as soup kitchens to a more transformative mode; and continuing to press the economic case for fighting child poverty.
“The idea that we don’t have the fiscal capacity for these smart investments is nonsense,” Cartensen said. “And if people don’t want to do it to be nice, tell them to look at the investments and the rate of return.”
Greenberg agreed. “Besides the moral case against poverty, there’s a strong economic case – when children grow up in persistent poverty, it diminishes their life chances, and it hurts our economy as a whole.” Indeed Economist Harry Holzer estimates the cost of sustained childhood poverty as approximately $500 billion dollars per year – about 4 percent of GDP – roughly evenly divided between lowered productivity, increased health care costs, and increased crime-related costs. Holzer took a conservative approach, examining a set of variables that are readily quantifiable. Even a Republican scholar testifying before Congress called Holzer’s study “superb.”
One area where Connecticut has had some success – success now threatened by the Bush administration’s war on government-assisted children’s healthcare – is with its State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), Husky B. Currently, the federal government funds sixty cents on the dollar, and the program allows Connecticut to subsidize healthcare for children up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line ($51,510 per year for a family of three). These are working families who don’t receive healthcare from employers and can’t afford to buy it themselves, and who are an accident or illness away from poverty. The Republican cuts would lead to kids losing healthcare and families turning to emergency rooms, thus raising healthcare costs for the public in the long run.
“Increased numbers of people without health insurance mean more families struggling to meet their basic needs with reduced resources,” Jane McNichol, Executive Director of the Legal Assistance Resource Center, recently said. “We need to focus on these issues at the national and state level to make progress for working families.”
At the national level, only one top-tier presidential candidate – John Edwards – has made fighting poverty a key campaign issue. Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future , told the Chicago Tribune: “Sen. Edwards was very gutsy to do what he’s done. Certainly he’s done it against the conventional wisdom of nearly all Democratic strategists. Political consultants will tell you that poor people don’t vote and middle-class people, when they’re feeling squeezed, aren’t generous.”
Peter Edleman, co-chair of the CAP Poverty Task Force, said, “There’s a rising concern in the country about inequality. There’s concern about giveaways to the really wealthy, and there’s concern about economic insecurity. The poverty issue is embedded in that.” Edelman sees affordable health care, universal pre-K, and other issues that impact the middle-class as having an important anti-poverty impact as well.
Advocates are frustrated with the lack of attention the media pays to persistent and growing poverty. As Manalan said, “The realities are that the effects of child poverty are enormous. It harms how children develop, it harms their chances of academic success, of finding a job that pays a living wage and of supporting their families. We can point to a myriad of social ills related to unchecked poverty, and ultimately, the insecurity in our state’s economic future brought about by the lack of a skilled workforce that can support business. So, given the sheer scope of these issues, it’s unconscionable how infrequently child poverty is in the news…. When we pitch stories or issue press releases often times we are met with a sense of fatigue, ‘we’ve seen this already’ type of response.”
But the fact is we will continue to see it, and see it, and see it… until we finally realize that – as Greenberg said – this isn’t about them, it’s about us. Between 1964-73 poverty fell by 42 percent. Between 1993-2000 it fell by 25 percent. Since then, it has been on the rise and creeping up towards a middle-class whose real wages are stagnant (or declining) while the cost of living is on the rise. The tragedy is that we have the resources to change course and we know what works. What continues to be lacking – as we currently see with the S-CHIP battle and the presidential campaign – is political will.
This article was co-authored by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.