It has been nearly half a century since President Johnson declared “war on poverty.” That war produced great successes, and many of its initiatives have been profoundly effective – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps); Head Start; Medicaid; the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program; school breakfast programs; and federal aid for poor schools and students.
Now, however, after years of erosion of wages and benefits, the U.S. poverty rate has risen and approaches a 50-year high. Yet poverty has become an almost invisible issue for policymakers and the press. It feels today like a “war on poverty” would need to begin with a battle just to gain recognition that poverty even exists.
In particular, we have seen growth in the ranks of the working poor – hardworking Americans whose jobs pay less than a living wage, often provide little dignity and offer few paths for advancement. Nearly 50 million Americans live below the poverty level, and 20 million of them are in extreme poverty (earning less than half the poverty threshold), according to the Census Bureau. Another 50 million people live in near poverty, with incomes less than 200 percent of the poverty line, or about $22,000 a year for an individual.
As poverty and low-wage work become more and more widespread – with much recent labor force growth occurring in poorly paying, dead-end jobs – it is striking how little is being said about the poor and those on the edge of poverty.
In a recent report, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in 52 major mainstream news outlets, coverage of poverty amounted to far less than 1 percent of available news space.
Meanwhile, Congress has devoted very little time to hearings on poverty or its consequences – hunger, bad housing and homelessness, overwhelming stress for parents, school failure, reduced productivity – during the past few years.
The facts about poverty and low-wage work are staring us in the face, but our society is largely averting its gaze. There are many reasons for this: persistent distrust of government among many Americans, real long-term fiscal and budget problems, political gridlock and the incorrect belief that most anti-poverty programs don’t work. Perhaps part of the problem is that, among the many powerful political action committees in Washington, D.C., there is no poor people’s PAC.
A renewed war on poverty like that of the 1960s may not be politically feasible or even the best way to address the problems of the poor and near poor. However, we cannot ignore the situation. There are effective solutions we should pursue like strengthening work supports and in-kind benefits such as the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit, Medicaid and the SNAP program – which have succeeded in keeping millions of Americans healthier, out of poverty and free of hunger. Government and the private sector must zealously focus on reducing unemployment.
To start to address the problem of low-wage work, it also is time to increase the minimum wage, which – at $7.25 an hour – is 40 percent less in inflation-adjusted terms than it was in 1968. Business and government should work together to develop better pathways for occupational mobility.
But none of these efforts can bear fruit unless we squarely face what is not working in our economy. The problems of the poor and near poor – children, seniors, people with disabilities, workers and unemployed people – must not be swept under the rug.