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.