Why America Is Losing the War on Poverty
Bailouts, welfare and other programs aren’t helping
Recent figures about poverty in America paint a grim picture about the living conditions of a large majority of Americans. Not only is poverty spreading rapidly, but the chances of escaping it are becoming more difficult, if not impossible. For instance, Timothy Smeeding wrote a recent New York Times article entitled, “Living the American Dream (in Canada),” in which he stated, “Of all the consequences of rising economic inequality, none is more worrisome than the possibility that a growing gap will make it harder for children of low-income and middle-class families to climb the economic ladder.” Smeeding’s argument about children is especially troubling. In 2010 the U. S. Census reported that one in five children now live in poverty in the U.S. Overall, the increased number of Americans living in poverty is at an all-time high.
Charles Moore, an urban and regional planner who lives in Albany, N.Y., asserts that policymakers are to blame for the dramatic rise in poverty. In a statement via email, Moore stated, “Coming at it from a policy or governmental perspective I would argue that it largely fell off the screen of many politicians and policymakers and therefore there has been a conscious choice to ignore it rather than fight to fix the causes and symptoms of poverty.” According to Moore this is especially problematic when “over 49 million people are living in poverty and nearly one in two Americans are now in poverty or classified as low-income.”
With so many Americans struggling to make ends meet and who are jobless, there is a collective awareness that the American Dream and a middle class lifestyle, at one time perhaps taken for granted, is no longer within reach. This means politicians are being forced to contend with growing income inequality and the dramatic spike in poverty. Indeed, as soon as the GOP primaries began, candidates began addressing these problems. But many of them appear to blame those who are in poverty. This stance is oftentimes racially charged as well. For instance, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum was recently taped saying, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them someone else’s money.” That statement is reminiscent of President Ronald Reagan’s claim that “welfare queens” deliberately committed fraud and took advantage of government programs. This negative picture led to the pejorative notion that black women expected “handouts” from the government. Reagan’s idea – despite scant evidence of this occurring – was firmly planted, and the belief remains to this day.
Santorum is not the only GOP contender making Reaganesque comments about welfare. Former Speaker of the House and GOP candidate New Gingrich recently said, “I will go to the NAACP convention, and tell the African American community why they should demand paychecks instead of food stamps.” Gingrich has also been quoted calling President Obama the “food stamp president.” Interestingly, actual data shows that most welfare recipients are white and from non-urban areas.
Since policymakers and politicians do not seem to be addressing the problem, and a number of them have gone so far as to attack individuals who are living in poverty (many experts have described this as a deliberate war on the poor), many groups are trying to combating the issue from a different angle by working at the local level. For example, Catholic Charities for USA (CCUSA) launched a program in 2007 to cut poverty in half by 2020. Candy Hill, Senior Vice President of Social Poverty and Government Affairs at CCUSA, emphasized the importance of reducing poverty in this way. While Hill believes government should play a role in these efforts, she also thinks a micro-level approach is crucial.
“We do not believe the solutions to the issue of poverty will be found in Washington, D.C. We believe that solutions are found in local communities. Poverty is not monolithic — it does not look the same in Detroit as it does in Wichita for example and thus, so-called ‘poverty programs in a box’ from Washington, D.C. cannot address the challenges that local communities face without the engagement of the local communities and those they serve in the solutions,” she explained.
Hill also echoed Moore’s remarks about the lack of engagement from D.C. in coming up with concrete solutions.
“While there is a very robust discussion occurring in Washington today about how much money should be spent on various federal programs that serve the poor, few are engaged in conversation about how better to administer those services and maximize efficiency in delivery,” she added.
Like CCUSA, Passage Home, a non-profit in Raleigh, North Carolina, has a similar approach to fighting poverty. Executive Director Jeanne Tedrow stated, “Our mission is to reduce poverty in our community among families and in neighborhoods.” They focus on helping people find housing. In addition, they have a specific program that helps recently released female inmates find work and housing. The program also offers resources that allow these women to reconnect with their families.
When it comes to single women with children, a report published by Legal Momentum in June 2011 revealed that the percentage of these families living in poverty in the United States is extremely high. In 2009, 29% of single women with children lived in poverty. In stark contrast, the poverty rates of this same group in Scandinavian countries were remarkably lower. These are also countries with strong and robust social safety nets and government programs that combat poverty.
Many Americans also assume that poverty is simply a given. However, the way in which it is spreading contradicts that assumption. Moreover, those who are dedicated to eradicating poverty refuse to accept that stance and find that line of thinking to be dangerous.
Tedrow points out, “There is some understanding that ‘the poor shall will be with us always’ and yet there are things we can do as a country – social policy, housing policy and employment policies that would assist people in caring for themselves. As a society we tend to look down on people in poverty and consider that most are not deserving of our help – this attitude works against us and locks us into social policies that are not efficient or are counterproductive.”
Even though the safety net for the poor has been whittled away as a result of federal and state budget cuts, and tax cuts for the rich are at historic highs, many politicians, most notably Republicans, still insist that Americans who live in poverty are receiving too many handouts. With more Americans slipping into poverty, perhaps new policies will eventually be implemented to fight this growing problem. For now, however, the current statistics on poverty paint a bleak picture of the current economic status for millions of Americans who comprise the working poor.