Spotlight Exclusives

Fighting Poverty in Pennsylvania

Dave Reed, Pennsylvania House of Representatives Dave Reed, Pennsylvania House of Representatives, posted on

A half century ago, with 40 million Americans living in poverty, President Lyndon Johnson launched his “unconditional war on poverty” to help those who were losing sight of the American Dream. Johnson۪s declaration set forth a strategy to bring poverty to its knees, while at the same time starting a debate, which continues today, about the government۪s role in protecting the most vulnerable and promoting opportunity.

While Johnson۪s commitment was commendable, we are still far from achieving his goals. Despite living in the wealthiest nation on earth and spending $1 trillion annually on anti-poverty programs, 45 million Americans are still living below the poverty line. We owe it to those struggling to achieve the American Dream to reassess and reconsider our current efforts, and better understand which policies are best-tailored to meet to help low-income Americans overcome the barriers they face.

With this in mind, the Pennsylvania House Majority Policy Committee, on which I served as chairman prior to my election as Majority Leader in November 2014, created the initiative Empowering Opportunities: Gateways Out of Poverty. The program sought to develop a nuanced and evidence-based understanding of how to lift the 1.6 million Pennsylvanians living in poverty toward self-sustainability.

We worked to first identify the barriers keeping people impoverished, as well as define the parts of our anti-poverty programs that are working successfully. Through a series of statewide roundtable discussions over the course of a year, committee members gathered information on how to change our approach in assisting our neediest citizens.

The initial findings of this initiative were outlined in April 2014 in the report “Beyond Poverty.” Many of the barriers facing low-income families were already well-documented: lack of family support, inadequate healthcare, the lingering effects of the Great Recession. But our report identified numerous other challenges such as a lack of adequate transportation, mental health problems, adequate financial literacy, and food insecurity that also weighed heavily on low-income Pennsylvanians.

As Majority Leader, I will continue to be involved in shifting those findings toward legislative solutions. In addition, five teams headed by my fellow lawmakers are working to create legislative and policy recommendations.

To better address poverty in Pennsylvania, we need to make sure programs are effective. My colleagues are exploring a partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts and MacArthur Foundation۪s Results First Initiative, which seeks to help guide policymaking decisions through careful cost-benefit analysis. The program would aid in a careful evaluation of state anti-poverty polices, helping Pennsylvania decide how to best spend its limited manpower and funds.

Additionally, we are exploring solutions to many of the specific challenges low-income individuals and families face.

Policymakers are teaming with private-sector partners to develop creative solutions to close funding gaps in early childhood education and break down barriers which currently prevent low-income or unemployed potential students from attending community colleges.

Additionally, our conversations around the state made clear that we need to work more closely with schools and financial institutions to make sure high school graduates have a firm understanding of banking, credit, and overall life skills necessary to practice healthy spending and long-term saving habits.

Finally, we are considering solutions for addressing the “benefits cliff;” the phenomenon in which low-income workers are often punished for moving up the income scale due to the subsequent phase-out of existing benefits.

Above all, addressing poverty in Pennsylvania will require everyone to work together. In our visits to communities across the Commonwealth, we often saw diverse groups joining forces in order to help people. The only way we can make progress in this effort is through enhanced cooperation, not only on behalf of community groups and nonprofits, but by the local, state, and federal government as well.

Throughout this journey, we talked with so many people who didn۪t even know the American Dream existed. This lack of faith in the American Dream runs contrary to the spirit on which our country was founded.

By joining together, we can develop new and more effective ways to help lift people out of poverty across Pennsylvania. It is my hope that as this discussion continues we can provide a blueprint for the nation in helping to bring a better life to those 45 million still living in poverty. Over fifty years into this nationwide discussion, we can and we must do better.

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Republican Pennsylvania State Representative Dave Reed represents the state۪s 62nd Legislative District and serves as the House Majority Leader.  

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