Spotlight Exclusives

Whoever Wins, High Hurdles Ahead

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Both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney care about America۪s most truly disadvantaged children, youth, and families. Each candidate wants to reduce poverty and chronic joblessness while helping America۪s struggling middle class.  

But whether the incumbent is reelected or the challenger succeeds him in office, the adverse economic conditions that have hurt tens of millions of Americans will still be with us come 2016. 

Nearly 50 million Americans live in households with incomes at or below the federal poverty line$19,090 for a family of three, and $30,970 for a family of six. More than 50 million Americans rely on Medicaid, and more than 40 million Americans receive federal subsidies to buy food. 

But the good news is that, were it not for federal programs, millions more Americans would go without enough food, money, or medicine. For instance, the poverty rate among senior citizens is about ten percent, but without federal benefits it would be about 45 percent. More than three million Americans are being kept above the poverty line by federally funded unemployment insurance.

Whoever wins the election must ensure these people are protected. Doing so will require a clear view of who is most at-risk for poverty and then pursuing targeted action to help them.

Other than our wealthiest fellow citizens the top 15 percent, not just the top one percent , the only Americans who have little or nothing to fear but fear itself from the 2012-2016 economy are senior citizens. More than half of elderly Americans get more than half of their annual income from Social Security, and Social Security will remain solvent through 2016. 

Medicare faces severe near-term solvency challenges, but those threats won۪t become acute until 2017 at the earliest. For all the campaign rhetoric regarding which candidate or party is most likely to cut Medicare benefits, the fine print of each side۪s “Medicare reform” plan guarantees that, at least for the next four years, per capita Medicare spending will grow, not shrink.

The highest anti-poverty hurdles are the ones facing America۪s young children, about 40 percent of whom live in low-income households. In recent years, for the first time, nearly a million children on any given day went hungry because, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts it, they were “subject to reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns” in “households [that] lacked money and other resources for food.”

Both President Obama and Governor Romney have ideas about how to rollback child poverty and reduce hunger among the young. Personally, I am more partial to the president۪s ideas, but everything that might be done to put policy on the side of needy children could eventually reduce poverty among the very young, just as we have succeeded in reducing it among the very old. 

Whichever candidate۪s policies one favors most, missing from each of their respective plans is due regard for the administrative apparatus necessary to ensure that intended beneficiaries become actual beneficiaries.

For instance, after the Medicare Modernization Act was passed in 2003, senior citizens were inundated with government supplied information about their new prescription drug benefitsMedicare Part D.  Compare that public administration push to what happens every summer in this country when it is time to implement federal policies that entitle poor children to summer meals. School is out, so city agencies and community-based organizations are expected to deliver the meals. In some places, they do, but in many states they simply do not. Childhood hunger rates soar until the next school bell rings.

Even what is rightly regarded by ideologically diverse experts as the single most effective anti-poverty policy ever the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program suffers from persistent implementation failures that no president, Democratic or Republican, has yet seen fit to fix. In my hometown, Philadelphia, for instance, we have thousands of EITC-eligible working poor citizens who never apply for the program and never get their benefits. 

Both President Obama and Governor Romney have their respective tax, job training, educational investment, and other policies to bolster middle-income families. But so did Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  Blame globalization, de-unionization, or whatever you fancy, but the fact is that real median household income dropped by about ten percent from 1999 to 2009. 

Finally, both President Obama and Governor Romney have expressed support for addressing economic and social needs through more robust partnerships between government agencies at all levels and the nation۪s scores of thousands of community-serving religious nonprofit organizations. I hope that, whoever is elected in November, between 2012 and 2016, Washington will do more to foster such partnerships in ways that make a measurable difference in Americans۪ socioeconomic well being. Call that hope “faith-based.”

This is a tall order for any president, but the need is acute. Millions of Americans are counting on what comes next.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

John J. DiIulio, Jr. is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Formerly, he served on the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives as the first director. 
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at


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