Make Poverty A Priority

In little more than a decade after President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” President Ronald Reagan led the nation in the equivalent of a helicopter evacuation from the epicenter of the fight.  Reagan and his band of conservatives also so poisoned the political discussion about poverty that even today many progressives dare not use a phrase that even smacks of “war on poverty” for fear of being tagged that epithet of epithets, an “out-of-touch, ’60s-style liberal.”

So when President Bush presides over a Gilded Age of economic inequality exacerbated by his own policies, the political response is too often muted. That is true even as one in eight Americans lives below the official poverty line  and as a total of at least 90 million Americans have incomes that are not high enough to meet all of their housing, food, education and health care needs.

Truth is, it’s time for some ‘60s-style liberalism when it comes to poverty in America. The programs and approaches need to be different, certainly, but we need to recapture that passion for change and the drive to make eradicating poverty a priority. To do that, the progressive movement needs bold, new ideas that offer real hope for transforming the lives of lower-income people and making the entire nation more prosperous.

The Center for American Progress released a set of recommendations today that have the potential to do just that. The goal of their 12-point program is to cut poverty in half within the next 10 years, through a series of pragmatic, sensible proposals that politicians and grassroots people can use to channel their passion and sense of urgency.

“Poverty is a threat to the national security and tranquility of this nation,” Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said at a conference called to discuss the report, “From Poverty to Prosperity.” Eradicating it should be a central mission of the nation’s political leadership and should cut across all facets of policymaking, he said.

The four principles that underlie the CAP program are:

People should work and work should pay enough to ensure that workers and their families can avoid poverty, meet their basic needs and save for the future.

Children and adults should be able to live in conditions that maximize their opportunities for success and advancement.

Americans should not fall into poverty when they cannot work or when work that will enable them to make ends meet is unavailable.

All Americans should have the opportunity to build assets that allow them to weather ups and downs in the economy or in their personal lives.

The recommendations include raising the minimum wage to 50 percent of the average wage, which is where it stood in the 1950s. Today, that would mean a minimum wage of about $8.40 an hour. Also recommended are such initiatives as an expanded earned income tax credit, child care assistance, housing vouchers, simplified and expanded Pell Grants for college, reforms in unemployment insurance and income assistance programs, and more employment aid for ex-offenders reintegrating into society.

CAP tallies the cost of its proposals at about $90 billion a year. That appears to be a daunting amount of money—until you consider that the United States spends that amount of money in about 36 days in Iraq, at the rate of about $2.5 billion a day. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said, “We have to tie this into poverty. They are both moral issues.”

Conservatives succeeded in taking the nation’s eye off the ball on the issue of poverty by couching it as an issue of “us vs. them,” with “them” being “welfare queens” and other hoary stereotypes who were solely responsible for their own predicament. Thus the Bush administration can claim that an “ownership society” is a cure-all when it is merely a not-so-kinder, gentler way of saying to the 40 percent of Americans who are falling behind under the Bush regime, “you’re on your own.”

But that offers progressives an opportunity to reframe the poverty debate as a “we’re-in-this-together” move toward a more equitable and prosperous society.

The CAP plan “doesn’t run away from the multifaceted nature of poverty, because it is multifaceted,” said Angela Glover Blackwell, the CEO of PolicyLink and a member of the CAP poverty task force that produced the report. It also ties the aspirations of the poor to the struggles of the middle class. “The same issues that make the middle class vulnerable are the same ones that keep people in poverty,” she said.

CAP’s specific proposals deserve serious scrutiny. But whatever the quality of the specific ideas, the economic plight of 90 million Americans needs to get back at the top of our economic and political agenda. We may not call it a “war on poverty,” but we need to fight on their behalf—thoughtfully, but unapologetically.

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