Exclusive Commentary

Obama’s Quiet Campaign to Fight Poverty

Barbara Blum, New York State Department of Social Services - Posted December 1, 2010

When the federal government recently released its official statistics on poverty, they showed that more Americans are living below the poverty line now than at any time since the U.S. Census Bureau began collecting data in 1959. 


This disturbing increase reflects the ongoing fallout of the economic downturn. But the fact is that the statistics would have been worse had it not been for a concerted effort by the Obama administration to ease poverty—an effort that deserves more attention.


Some key steps – including the extension of unemployment benefits and the expansion of some safety-net measures in the stimulus legislation – were well-publicized. But the administration has also made strategic use of existing laws and programs to fulfill the President’s campaign commitment to work with the faith community to reduce poverty.


This quiet campaign for change has three key planks: building human capital, enforcing wage and hour standards, and providing income-enhancing benefits.


Building a better-educated and stronger workforce is the goal of such initiatives as the “Race to the Top” K-12 education reform effort and the significant federal investment in the nation’s community college system.   


The overhaul of the student financial aid system and implementation of the Post 9/11 GI Bill are key steps toward reaching the President’s call for Americans to obtain at least one year of college or vocational training—not only for themselves, but for the good of the country’s economy.


At the Labor Department, Secretary Hilda Solis has made enforcement of wage and hour laws a priority, recognizing that many employers fail to follow them, which can cost a typical low-wage worker an estimated $2,500 in annual earnings, according to the Interfaith Justice Center. Recent enforcement actions in the poultry and health care sectors have helped thousands of low-wage workers recoup rightfully-earned income.


And the administration is working to implement many of the recommendations of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to remove barriers that prevent low-income families from obtaining critical benefits, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps), child nutrition subsidies, and the Earned Income Tax Credit—economic supports that can be critical to a family’s economic survival. 


Finally, the administration is holding itself accountable through a new supplemental poverty measure that provides a much-needed update in how we define poverty. 


But the official poverty statistics also provide a sobering reminder that much more needs to be done to create real economic opportunities for low-income Americans. 


The good news is that we can accomplish a lot without new legislation, building on the quiet campaign for change.


We can start by re-thinking the systems through which people apply for and receive safety-net benefits. The current system is outdated, expensive, and needlessly complicated. A smarter system could allow someone to be screened for a range of public and private benefits at one time, in convenient, neighborhood-based locations.


And there’s no reason we can’t use information included in income tax returns or other benefit applications to proactively identify people who are eligible for benefits and make sure that they receive them. Already, a handful of states identify families eligible for, but who did not apply for, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and send them amended returns that include the credit, which is often worth more than $3,000. 


The Labor Department should continue to proactively enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act, with the goal of putting rightfully-earned income back in the pockets of low-wage workers. One glaring need is for a requirement that home-care workers no longer be exempt from these protections, which include the minimum wage and overtime pay after 40 hours of work in a week. 

And there is unfinished business with welfare reform. The Department of Health and Human Services should clarify the work requirements for welfare recipients and make it easier for them to pursue post-secondary credentials, following the example of programs in Maine and Wyoming. Without these advanced credentials, many people leaving welfare will be poorly equipped to obtain and keep jobs in the new economy.


The Obama administration is focused intently on easing poverty, more so than perhaps any administration since the mid-1960s. But there’s more to be done if we want live up to the belief that all Americans should have a real opportunity to build economic security.

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Barbara Blum is the former President of MDRC and former Commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services.