Poverty is back. Or to be more accurate, it never left.
For almost a generation, talking about the problems of
poverty in the United States
has been political poison. Neither major political party paid enough attention
to the issue.
Now, in this election year, the remaining presidential
candidates have all said fighting poverty will be a priority in his or her
administration. Both Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have pledged to
appoint a poverty point-person and each supports setting a numerical goal and
timeline for reducing poverty. Senator John McCain recently pledged to make
“eradication of poverty a top priority.” And the issue has figured prominently
in media coverage of the campaign. Last year, stories in the media about
poverty and politics increased 145 percent over the previous election cycle.
The changing political winds are also evident at the state
level. A new report released by the Center for Law and Social Policy and the
foundation-led initiative, Spotlight on
Poverty and Opportunity, found that a dozen states have taken significant
steps to focus more attention on poverty, with ten states acting since 2006.
The trend seems to be gaining strength; at least four more states are
considering proposals to create poverty commissions.
The states are taking a variety of approaches. Connecticut, Delaware
have established dates for cutting child poverty by 50 percent. In Colorado and Iowa,
bipartisan legislative caucuses were formed to push for new initiatives, while
in Michigan a
statewide summit has been scheduled. Eight states have formed commissions to
make recommendations for action.
It is evident from all this activity that the nation has
reached a moment of opportunity. Fighting poverty has moved from a secondary
political issue to a cause with increasing bipartisan support. It is critical that we seize the moment and
take strong action at the federal level to dramatically reduce poverty in this
What has caused the change? A number of factors have focused
more attention on poverty at this time:
gap between rich and poor has grown worrisome to many of us, including
those charged with national economic policy. Federal Reserve Board
Chairman Ben Bernanke has warned that the unchecked growth in income
inequality could threaten the nation’s economic vitality.
cherished piece of the American Dream – the notion that individuals have
the opportunity to rise beyond their parent’s economic status – is not
standing up to scrutiny. A study by the Economic Mobility Project finds
that 42 percent of children born to parents in the bottom fifth of income
distribution remain in the bottom, and 39 percent born to parents in the
top fifth remain at the top. Steps
must be taken to strengthen our economy and expand opportunities for jobs,
ownership and affordable housing.
of poor households with children include a full-time, year-round worker.
Three million full-time workers live below the poverty line, therefore,
streamlining, broadening, and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit
(EITC) is essential.
high cost of medical care is straining families. One state found that
one-fourth of its foster care caseload resulted when unaffordable bills
for child mental-health services left parents with no choice but to place
their children in the foster care system, where they would be covered by
periods of very slow growth and recession, more lives are touched by
economic insecurity, and more households that were near the margins tumble
into poverty. Depending on how severe the current recession proves to be,
it could submerge from 5 to 10 million more Americans below the poverty
The greater focus on poverty has been accompanied by an
increasing emphasis on solutions. The Center for American Progress found that
poverty could be reduced by 26 percent through such straightforward measures as
raising the minimum wage, expanding the EITC and Child Tax Credit and
increasing the availability of child care assistance for low-income
families. The price for such efforts
would be about $90 billion, compared with the estimated $500 billion cost to
the nation each year from childhood poverty.
More needs to be done to expand access to capital, access to quality
education and creating greater access to job opportunities in the private
There is a growing perception that compassion for our fellow
citizens is not only a moral imperative but essential to strengthening our
nation. We need to make the most of this window of opportunity. The public is
sympathetic; the states are leading pro-actively; and the presidential
candidates are saying the right things. In January 2009, when a new President
and a new Congress take over, we need to be certain that they remember their
promises and take decisive steps to sharply reduce poverty in this land of
Jack Kemp, principal at Kemp Partners, is a former
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a former member of Congress. George
Mitchell is chairman of the law firm of DLA Piper and a former Majority Leader
of the U.S.
Senate. Both are members of the Advisory Council of Spotlight on Poverty and
Opportunity: Foundations Ask Presidential Candidates What They’ll Do for
Viewpoints in this section solely represent the authors’ opinions and not the opinions of "Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity."