13 Lessons About Poverty

13 Lessons About Poverty


– For the next 15 minutes, I’d like for us to consider three things. First, what was the theory of poverty that guided the War on Poverty? That is, how did they think about who is poor, why they were poor, and what could be done about it? Second, how’s our thinking about these issues changed after 50 years now of research and on-the-ground interventions? And third, what are the implications of that for how we think about moving forward? With some particular attention to how AmeriCorps VISTA, VISTAs themselves, and the agencies they support might think about a new anti-poverty agenda for the next years and decades. In the War on Poverty era, it seems to me, poverty was typically understood to be a thing that happens to other people. President Johnson described people living in poverty as, “isolated from the mainstream of American life and alienated from its values.” People living in poverty were them, not us, and poverty itself was understood to be an anomaly, an aberration, a deviation from the norm. As a consequence, part of the mission of the Great Society was to try to incorporate them into mainstream institutions and culture through education, job training, housing, medical care, and so on. But we now know, that poverty is not something experienced by a small minority of people. Let me explain. Here’s the official data. It shows a poverty rate of 14.5 percent in 2013. That’s about 46 million Americans living at or below the poverty line. If we look at the Census Bureau supplemental poverty measure, it shows a poverty rate really of about 15.5 percent in 2013, 49 million Americans. Either way, these measures are only telling us how many people ended up with net income that falls below the poverty line over the course of the entire year. But we now know that people slip in and out of poverty over the course of that year. People may be poor one month and not poor the next. So if we step back and ask, how many people experience a spell of poverty over a four year period, we find that 35 percent, more than one-third of Americans will be poor at least once for two months or more. That’s Lesson One. Since VISTA’s founding, we’ve learned that poverty is wide-spread. It’s a much more common experience than we thought it was then. Poverty’s not something that happens to them, it’s something that will happen to lots of us. That’s important I think in part, because perhaps, if people cannot be mobilized to fight poverty for altruistic reasons, maybe they might be mobilized for selfish ones. It’s also a way to highlight one of the virtues of VISTA’s key program features. Because VISTA’s earn a poverty-level stipend, perhaps it’s easier for them to think of people struggling to get by with limited resources as us, not them. Poverty is also a different kind of problem than we thought it was then. While 35 percent of all Americans will experience poverty at least once over the course of a four year period, fewer than three percent of us will be consistently poor over that four year period. Long-term, persistent poverty is real and we must address it, but that’s not what most poverty looks like. In some ways, perhaps we’ve been focusing on the wrong problem. That points us to Lesson Two. Given how many people have an experience of poverty, how many people are perched on the edge of it, and slip in and out of it, perhaps instead of talking about poverty, we should be talking about insecurity as the problem of this age. More and more Americans live precarious economic lives, and are utterly unprepared for an emergency that suddenly increases their expenses or reduces their income. What are we doing to deal with that? And how do remedies directed at insecurity differ from our traditional remedies directed at poverty? Lesson Three is this. Childhood is profoundly important even more so than we thought in the 1960s. And the stakes are especially critical for very young children. Stress has physiological consequences, and poverty is exceedingly stressful, especially for children. Combine that with inadequate pre-natal care and childhood nutrition, and you get irreversible, long-term cognitive, social, emotional, and health deficits. Being in poverty as a child, is associated with lower achievement later in school, reduced earnings in adulthood, higher rates of unintended pregnancy, higher rates of incarceration, and higher rates of things like cardiovascular disease, disability, and mental illness. So, if you want to reduce the number of adults who are poor tomorrow, reduce the number of children who are poor today. And remember, single largest group of Americans living in poverty, are children. Lesson Four. The Kennedy Administration started paying attention to poverty, thanks in part to Bobby’s visits to poor African-American communities to Appalachia and to Native American reservations. Poverty was not and is not a problem only of those particular places and people, but there is still an important lesson here. Where you are born has a lot to do with the kinds of opportunities you’ll have or not have. This reaffirms the importance of place-based policies and community-specific initiatives. One of the most striking modern developments, is the rise of poverty in the suburbs. This is especially important given how much of our social service infrastructure was built to deal with poverty in the cities. It’s another way in which poverty may be a different kind of problem than we thought it was, and perhaps, an especially useful lesson for VISTA. Lesson Five is that race is alas, as important now as it was in the 1960s. We have clearly made progress in reducing African-American poverty from its radically high mid-20th Century levels, but it is still three times the rate that it is for white Americans. And African-Americans still fare worse across a range of measures, whether we’re talking about income, wages, wealth, mobility, education, access to health care, life expectancy or infant mortality. I noted earlier that 35 percent of all Americans will experience poverty over a four year period. It’s 49 percent for African-Americans and it’s 53 percent for Hispanic-Americans. We’ve got to better reckon with the ways in which disadvantages accumulate. And with the fact that our unique historical legacies may well mean that poverty for different groups has different roots, and may therefore require different remedies. I’ve noted the continued importance of paying attention to children in poverty. But children, can also exacerbate the poverty of adults given that they are inevitably dependent, and their care requires time, and it requires money. This is a much more acute problem than it was 50 year ago, simply because there are so many more women in the labor force. And because we still live in a world in which women do the overwhelming majority of all unpaid care work, it is their earnings that suffer most. This is in part why female-headed families continue to be so much poorer than two-parent families. Something the Johnson Administration worried about even then. But the problem is actually worse now. And this need not be the case. We know this, because as you can see here in the blue lines, there are many nations with higher out of wedlock birth rates than in the United States. But every single one of those countries, with more lone parents, nonetheless, winds up with lower rates of childhood poverty than we do. That’s the red lines. If you’re working at the community or agency level with poor women with children, who may be caring for sick or aging family members, remember, you’ve go to foreground the problem of, who cares for those who are providing care? What we’ve also learned, is not just that some people cannot work because they cannot solve the care-giving puzzle, others cannot work because, for a variety of reasons, illness, injury, mental illness, physical or developmental disability, they are not well-suited to the modern labor market. The result is much higher rates of poverty for them. We saw earlier that few poor people are consistently poor over a four year period, maybe three percent of the population. Well two-thirds of that group have one or more disability. Lesson Seven is that disability must be foregrounded in our thinking about poverty much more than it has been. But even those who are able to work and do, may still be poor, nonetheless. 32 percent of all women who work, and 24 percent of all men who work, work in jobs that pay wages so low that even if they work full time all year round, they will still be poor. It’s something we’ve been seeing for decades in soup kitchens and food pantries around the country. The growing numbers of people who work full time and yet cannot earn enough to put food on the table. The problem is particularly acute for people of color. 42 percent of Hispanic-Americans and 36 percent of African-Americans, work in poverty-wage jobs. No matter how many hours or how many weeks they work, they cannot escape poverty with wages alone. Which means, either labor markets need to change, or the policies and programs that support working people must. Medicare and Medicaid point us to Lesson Nine, showing us that access to health care reduces poverty. The Affordable Care Act is giving us additional evidence of this, especially its expansion of Medicaid in those states that have chosen to take part. We could reduce poverty even more by adding dental coverage and mental health coverage, problems that are especially severe among poor and low income populations. On the micro level, you can help people in your communities get coverage, access care, and deal with small medical issues before they become larger ones. If people are less sick, they will be less poor. And of course, if people are less poor to begin with, they’re less likely to get sick, and less likely to remain sick for long periods of time. Here’s Lesson Ten. Mass incarceration is a post War on Poverty phenomenon. And its effects are disproportionately concentrated in low income communities of color, and among African-American men especially. And anti-poverty programs have got to take seriously the prison and the universe of people affected by it, if they are serious about improving well-being. Whatever else it is, the American Criminal Justice System is a massive engine for making people sick, angry, and poor. Lesson Eleven is that we’ve got to start talking about climate change as a poverty problem. Hurricane Katrina was the canary in the coal mine here. What are we doing to help poor places and the people in them prepare for this new, 21st Century poverty problem? We’ve got to because they will be affected first, and they’ll be hit the hardest. Now it’s not all bad news. Thanks to Social Security, we now know that we can reduce poverty a lot, and rather easily. Here we’ve done it by sending money regularly to older Americans. The earned income tax credit in SNAP have taught us the same lesson. Cash and near cash benefits can have significant anti-poverty effects. More local programs can learn this lesson and trust the research that shows that unconditional cash grants may be the single most effective intervention that’s available to us. But this, among other things, requires trusting poor people to know what’s best for themselves. But that’s a lesson consonant with VISTA’s committment to low income people’s self determination and having a voice in service delivery. Finally, let’s dispense with the notion that the War on Poverty failed. It did a lot, even if it could’ve done more. There were real successes to the War on Poverty. How do we know this? Take a look. That green line shows us the pre-transfer poverty rate, that’s how much poverty has been created by the economy without counting the effects of anit-poverty policies and programs. Notice that the economy is producing about the same amount of poverty today as it was 50 years ago. That black line shows us, using the supplemental measure, how much actual poverty remains once we count the effects of anti-poverty programs. Over the War on Poverty period, we’ve brought poverty down from 26 percent to 16 percent. Now that’s not nearly enough, I’d argue, but it’s not nothing either. These are not the only important lesssons that we might take a away from the last 50 years of course, but I’m hoping they might be one place from which we can start to think about what we should be doing now to solve today’s poverty and inequality. Remember, not all past solutions will be the best ones moving forward. We can’t build 21st Century anti-poverty programs on 20th Century notions of the roots of need. Thank you. Thank you to AmeriCorps VISTA, and here’s to the next 50 years of service.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *