Last week the US Census Bureau released new data on poverty in 2010. The damaging impact of the Great Recession and weak labor market is stark: 46.2 million Americans lived below the poverty line—less than $22,314 annually for a family of four—which translates to nearly one in six Americans. This is the highest number on record in fifty-two years of poverty estimates. More than every fifth child in this country is now mired in poverty, and a record 20 million people are living in deep poverty—less than about $11,000 for a family of four—including an astonishing 9.9 percent of children.
The media has had to pay attention to these numbers—they are too dramatic to ignore. But with unemployment expected to remain high through 2012, the coverage is filled with an almost fatalistic helplessness when it comes to reversing this crisis.
Yet there are many good people and groups which have been fighting to end poverty for decades. They offer concrete, savvy and strategic ideas about “what works”—ideas too often overlooked in a capitol corroded by money, and by media that seem to only discover poverty when the new census numbers roll around.
Here are ten ideas that can make a real difference right now in the lives of people who are poor or near poor.
“First, Do No Harm”
Currently, programs work against each other to keep people poor. An increase in earned or unearned income can result in cuts in food stamps, reductions in housing subsidies, loss of cash assistance, etc. Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services in Ohio, has worked on these issues for over thirty years. He offers this simple advice, “First, do no harm. No benefits should ever be cut before a family reaches an income above the poverty level.”
Raise Your Game in a SNAP
SNAP (food stamps) is the single most effective government program in lifting families with children out of deep poverty. According to the Census Bureau, 3.9 million people—including 1.7 million children—were lifted above the poverty line in 2010 under the alternative measurement that counts SNAP benefits in addition to wages and other income.
But some states do a far better job than others at reaching SNAP-eligible people. States with poor participation rates—such as California, Colorado, New Jersey, Texas and others—should “raise their game,” reducing barriers like requests for frequent office visits, arbitrary rules, insufficient outreach to potential clients and inadequate Internet access.
“If the worst performing states did as well as other states, hundreds of thousands or millions of people would be lifted out of deep poverty,” says Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, who has worked for over forty years to reduce poverty and hunger.
A Job Training Model
Half in Ten—a national campaign to reduce poverty by 50 percent over the next ten years—cites a private-public partnership in Massachusetts that is connecting lower-income people to good jobs and showing promise as a national model. Partners HealthCare, a nonprofit healthcare system, runs a training and employment program to prepare low-income adults for jobs at their hospitals. Participants include many single mothers—critical, since a stunning 42.2 percent of families headed by a single mother lived in poverty in 2010. The six-week program is free and includes classroom instruction, an internship and job search assistance to help people find entry-level jobs. Case-management continues for one year following program completion.
Expand National Service and Rehabilitate Housing
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks (OASHF), says expanding national service programs would reach young adults, displaced blue- and white-collar workers and seniors trying to secure new skills to re-enter the work force. OASHF has operated these programs for nearly five years and says they have a strong anti-poverty impact.
“Even better would be if national service were combined with housing,” says Hamler-Fugitt. “Take foreclosed homes that are dragging down property values and provide national service members with the training and materials to renovate them. If they live in these homes for three years, bring them to code, and commit to serving as neighborhood caregivers—caring for the elderly or youth—the deed and ownership of the home would go to the national service member, debt free.”
Speaking of Housing…
“Housing assistance is very under-funded, it serves only a fraction of qualifying households who apply, but per-recipient is one of the most effective of the cash and near-cash assistance programs when it comes to lifting people in deep poverty to much higher income levels,” says Arloc Sherman, senior researcher with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), who has worked on poverty-related issues for over twenty years.
CBPP recommends expanding housing assistance and—at a minimum—the number of people receiving help shouldn’t be reduced. The federal government should also fully fund housing agencies for adequate upkeep, operation and rehabilitation of developments.
Keep it Simple
Every year, billions of dollars allocated to provide millions of struggling families with resources like food, childcare and medical access goes unused. Single Stop USA’s community college initiative provides on-campus sites where students receive free tax preparation services, full benefits access, comprehensive legal services and financial counseling.
“Currently less than 40 percent of community college students nationwide complete their studies,” says Elisabeth Mason, CEO of Single Stop USA, and a lifelong resident of East Harlem. “We believe this approach can dramatically raise that number which will lead to a lot more people in jobs that pay a living wage.”
Reward Low-Income College Students
Instead of eliminating opportunities based on past performance, how about rewarding people for their efforts in the present? MDRC has been testing performance-based scholarships for years. Unlike merit aid, they aren’t based on past academic success but are paid in installments to students who maintain consistent enrollment and a “C” average. Results so far—including at two colleges in the New Orleans area—suggest that this approach boosts academic success, retention and full-time enrollment, while reducing hardship and loan indebtedness. The scholarship programs have now successfully launched in six other states.
Childcare, A No-Brainer
Subsidize childcare programs for families under 200 percent of poverty—approximately $44,000 for a family of four—which now includes more than one in three Americans.
For every dollar put into childcare, nearly two additional dollars are generated in sales in the overall economy. It also makes working families more stable and enables them to use their money towards other basic needs. Finally, childcare helps young children prepare for school and beyond, which saves money in early intervention and welfare dependency.
Paid Sick Days Save Wages and Jobs
“A day missed from work can mean a loss of a day’s wages and sometimes a job,” says Jodie Levin-Epstein, deputy director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, who has worked on poverty reduction for over twenty years. “Paid sick days make a big difference to low income families.”
Forty-four million US workers lacked paid sick days in 2010. Eighty-one percent of low wage workers typically do not get paid if they get sick or take care of a sick family member. Connecticut, San Francisco, DC and Seattle have all passed paid sick days laws. Federal legislation has been introduced that would allow employees to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave per year at businesses with fifteen or more employees—covering more than 30 million working families.
Career Pathways to Jobs
The career pathways framework is an effective way of connecting education and training, employment and support services so that low-skilled students, who often have significant financial and life barriers, are able to get an education and earn a certificate or degree.
Innovative programs include flexible scheduling, basic skills education and occupational training, with a strong role for potential employers. The federal government should work with states to plan and implement this kind of comprehensive approach to education and training.
* * *
As the middle class is gutted and many more people fall into poverty, isn’t it time to listen to the people who have been working on this issue for decades? Poverty fatalism—the “there’s nothing we can do” kind of attitude—will only lead to economic scarring of generations to come.