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.
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.
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.
quiet campaign for change has three key planks: building human capital, enforcing
wage and hour standards, and providing income-enhancing benefits.
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.
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.
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
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.
the administration is holding itself accountable through a new supplemental
poverty measure that provides a much-needed update in how we define
the official poverty statistics also provide a sobering reminder that much more
needs to be done to create real economic opportunities for low-income
good news is that we can accomplish a lot without new legislation, building on
the quiet campaign for change.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
To print a PDF version of this document, click here.
Barbara Blum is the former President of MDRC and
former Commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services.