Spotlight Exclusives

Poverty Has Returned to the Public Agenda by Jack Kemp and George Mitchell

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Poverty is back. Or to be more accurate, it never left.

For almost a generation, talking about the problems ofpoverty in the United Stateshas been political poison. Neither major political party paid enough attentionto the issue.

Now, in this election year, the remaining presidentialcandidates have all said fighting poverty will be a priority in his or heradministration. Both Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have pledged toappoint a poverty point-person and each supports setting a numerical goal andtimeline for reducing poverty. Senator John McCain recently pledged to make”eradication of poverty a top priority.” And the issue has figured prominentlyin media coverage of the campaign. Last year, stories in the media aboutpoverty and politics increased 145 percent over the previous election cycle.

The changing political winds are also evident at the statelevel. A new report released by the Center for Law and Social Policy and thefoundation-led initiative, Spotlight onPoverty and Opportunity, found that a dozen states have taken significantsteps to focus more attention on poverty, with ten states acting since 2006.The trend seems to be gaining strength; at least four more states areconsidering proposals to create poverty commissions.The states are taking a variety of approaches. Connecticut, Delawareand Vermonthave established dates for cutting child poverty by 50 percent. In Colorado and Iowa,bipartisan legislative caucuses were formed to push for new initiatives, whilein Michigan astatewide summit has been scheduled. Eight states have formed commissions tomake recommendations for action.It is evident from all this activity that the nation hasreached a moment of opportunity. Fighting poverty has moved from a secondarypolitical issue to a cause with increasing bipartisan support.  It is critical that we seize the moment andtake strong action at the federal level to dramatically reduce poverty in thiscountry.What has caused the change? A number of factors have focusedmore attention on poverty at this time:

  • The 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 nation۪s economic vitality.
  • A cherished piece of the American Dream the notion that individuals have the opportunity to rise beyond their parent۪s 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.
  • One-third 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.
  • The 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 Medicaid.
  • During 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 line.

The greater focus on poverty has been accompanied by anincreasing emphasis on solutions. The Center for American Progress found thatpoverty could be reduced by 26 percent through such straightforward measures asraising the minimum wage, expanding the EITC and Child Tax Credit andincreasing the availability of child care assistance for low-incomefamilies.  The price for such effortswould be about $90 billion, compared with the estimated $500 billion cost tothe nation each year from childhood poverty. More needs to be done to expand access to capital, access to qualityeducation and creating greater access to job opportunities in the privatesector.

There is a growing perception that compassion for our fellowcitizens is not only a moral imperative but essential to strengthening ournation. We need to make the most of this window of opportunity. The public issympathetic; the states are leading pro-actively; and the presidentialcandidates are saying the right things. In January 2009, when a new Presidentand a new Congress take over, we need to be certain that they remember theirpromises and take decisive steps to sharply reduce poverty in this land ofopportunity.

Jack Kemp, principal at Kemp Partners, is a formerSecretary of Housing and Urban Development and a former member of Congress. GeorgeMitchell is chairman of the law firm of DLA Piper and a former Majority Leaderof the U.S.Senate. Both are members of the Advisory Council of Spotlight on Poverty andOpportunity: Foundations Ask Presidential Candidates What They۪ll Do forAmerica.

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