Spotlight Exclusives

2009: Poverty and the Great Recession, By Tom Freedman, former Senior Advisor to President Clinton, and John Bridgeland, former Director of the Domestic Policy Council for President George W. Bush

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As we approach the end of 2009, it۪s a reasonable time to take a brief look at the state of poverty amidst the worst recession since the Great Depression and at how the political process has dealt with it. As a Democrat and Republican who care about the issue, our verdict is that while partisanship is part of the problem in confronting issues affecting low-income Americans, apathy also plays a key role.

An obvious fact is that the recession۪s impact has been severe.

The official unemployment rate has reached 10.2 percentthe highest it۪s been since the recession of the 1980s, when the high was 10.8 percent. A broader measure including discouraged workers and those forced into part-time jobs is at 17.5 percent, the highest it۪s been since the Great Depression. More workers than ever have been forced into part-time work.

The tough job market hits those in need most. According to the New York Times, 20,000 people a day are signing up for food stamps, and almost nine out of ten people who benefit from the program are below the poverty line. More than one in ten Americans already rely on food stamps, including half of those under 20 and 90 percent of African-American children.

Despite resources like food stamps, millions of Americans are struggling to get enough to eat. According to the USDA, nearly 50 million people 16.4 percent of the population struggled to get enough to eat in 2008. That۪s the highest number since the USDA started keeping track in 1995.

In 2008, almost half of people below the official poverty line 46 percent struggled to get enough to eat. That includes more than half of poor children. Over a third of people living in households headed by single women (38 percent) and a quarter of black and Hispanic Americans (27 and 29 percent, respectively) had low food security.

Given the scope of the problem, it is surprising that it doesn۪t get more coverage. It is still unusual, for instance, when the issue of hunger makes it to the front page of the Washington Post, as it has recently. But some of the biggest issues in the news recently, including the recession, unemployment, and the debate around health care, have a huge influence on low-income Americans. What۪s surprising is that the very serious challenges faced by low-income Americans the way these issues affect them aren۪t in the spotlight more.

It۪s easy to blame the media for not focusing on the problems of those most in need. And likewise, it۪s easy to ask why the political process seems to deal with low-income people as almost an afterthought.

The harder reality may to be to grope toward an answer. All too often, our society that’s all of us would rather not think about what is happening to those struggling the most. The economy is hard for everyone, and when almost every American is fighting to make it, it may be especially unpleasant to be reminded that the poorest among us need even more of a hand up. It is worth noting that it is often the poorest among us who are offering the most help to those in need in terms of food and shelter, and they are being helped the least.

On the brighter side, we۪ve been gratified by some of the policy debate this year. Important topics are being debated, and no one can doubt the future of the economy looks like it will be a key concern for Congress and the Administration in the year ahead. If we can avoid politics for politics۪ sake, and focus on areas of agreement, there are real possibilities for progress. Having each served presidents and worked in congressional offices, we know that out of much of the most heated debate, there may be some light ahead.

And at a more immediate level, we are grateful. When we started this weekly line of commentaries, no one really knew what to expect, and we certainly didn۪t know it would be a year of such economic travails. We۪ve been heartened by the many expert and heartfelt articles we۪ve received and helped publish. On behalf of the Spotlight team, we appreciate this community. And look forward to a year ahead of grappling with the hard and important questions of how to fight poverty and expand opportunity.

Tom Freedman is a former Senior Advisor to President Clinton and currently serves as President of Freedman Consulting. John Bridgeland is the former Director of the Domestic Policy Council for President George W. Bush and currently serves as President and CEO of Civic Enterprises.

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