"There is definitely a story going untold," says Melissa Boteach, manager of Half in Ten, a national campaign to reduce poverty by 50 percent over the next ten years. "When you have one in seven Americans living in poverty, one in five children living in poverty—including one in three African-American children and Latino children—and it’s not on America’s radar, something’s very wrong."
Indeed it is the shame of our nation that a record 47 million people now live below the poverty line—$22,400 for a family of four—and a stunning one in three Americans are living at less than twice that threshold. And yet we hear so little about this crisis in the mainstream media and Congress, where it seems off the radar not only for the GOP but even for some of our progressive allies.
But the grim truth is that many of the same structural problems that are making life a struggle for the middle class—and resulted in the first "economic recovery" in 2003–07 where productivity rose but median income declined and poverty worsened—are also leading to record numbers of poor people. From 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent. Our economy is super-sizing the wealthy, while producing large quantities of low-wage jobs, unemployment and underemployment, and services are eroding. So the work of those who are waging today’s war on poverty comes with a very different frame.
"We need to make the connection between what’s happening to lower-income Americans and the middle-class," says Boteach. "We need to make sure that this economic recovery is different—that we’re not seeing a larger concentration of wealth, but a growing middle-class, increasing wages and reduced poverty. That’s an economic recovery that can cut poverty in half."
To meet that kind of ambitious and much-needed goal, antipoverty advocates must overcome a host of stereotypes and myths, including one which refuses to fade, facts be damned: we waged a War on Poverty, and poverty won.
"That’s just historically inaccurate," says Boteach. "If you actually look at history you can see that policy interventions really do make a difference. Between 1964 and 1973, the poverty rate fell by more than 40 percent. More recently, the Recovery Act kept millions of people out of poverty."
Indeed the Recovery Act included the largest (temporary) expansion of antipoverty programs in forty years. And according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, it kept more than 4.5 million people out of poverty in 2009 through unemployment benefits, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) and the new Making Work Pay tax credit. Those provisions will be difficult to extend under the new Republican House "cut-as-you-go" rule, which would require that they are offset by equivalent reductions in other mandatory spending—not, for example, by closing tax loopholes for corporations that shelter profits overseas. (In contrast, any new tax breaks for the wealthy would not have to be offset at all. If this doesn’t speak volumes about the GOP’s priorities and hypocrisy on the deficit, I don’t know what does.)