New Haven Register
By: Lucinda Winslow
February 23, 2014
I'm as sick of snow as anyone though I do love a good, wintry winter. But the sun's warming; I haven't given up on spring. It always arrives in green glory. So despite the snow, optimism.
I'm optimistic on another front as well. Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared an "unconditional War on Poverty" that created important federal and state initiatives which continue to lift many out of poverty: Head Start, nutrition assistance (food stamps or SNAP and WIC: Women Infants and Children), Medicare and Medicaid.
Inspired by President Johnson's call to keep the American bargain for a decent shot at stable lives built on economic opportunity, the political will awoke. Within 10 years, helped by the civil rights movement and a strong economy, the number of people living in poverty was more than halved from around 19 percent to 11 percent. A huge success.
Fifty years later some things are still better. More women are in the workplace; people of color, people with disabilities and the elderly have more protection and are more integrated into our society as a whole. But on many counts, we are falling behind. Wages have dropped way behind the cost of living. Economic opportunity has plummeted for those at the low end of the income curve even as it has skyrocketed for the wealthy few.
The Great Recession has highlighted this downward trend. Poverty rates are up again to 15 percent, (20 percent for children), and yet policy makers are backtracking on the War on Poverty by cutting programs and services in the name of deficit reduction. Just last month, Congress cut SNAP (formerly food stamps) by $8.6 billion in the Farm Bill. As a result, in Connecticut many families will see their food budget drop by $120 per month (for a family of four).
Still, there is good news. Americans are waking up. A new study by the Center for American Progress finds that two-thirds of Americans polled strongly believe that poverty is primarily the result of a failed economy rather than the result of personal decisions and lack of effort. An overwhelming number -- 85 percent -- think that government has a responsibility to combat poverty and 70 percent think that "The President and Congress (should) set a national goal to cut poverty in the US in half within ten years." A majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans support this vision: cutting poverty in half by 2024. Half in Ten, as it is being called.
This is the cue for our legislators to support and expand policies to increase economic mobility in America. This means helping families earn what they need by expanding programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit that are second only to Social Security in lifting families out of poverty. (SNAP is third.) It means celebrating and improving our new national health care policy -- since medical out-of-pocket costs are the premier cause of wiping out savings and plunging families into poverty in the U.S. It means encouraging low-income entrepreneurship through social business development. It means supporting early childhood learning as a way out of poverty for many, which Rep. Rosa DeLauro champions of so tirelessly.
It also means new programs: raising the minimum wage, and inquiring at the places we do business if they are paying their employees a living wage. (Our entire Connecticut congressional delegation has co-sponsored the Fair Minimum Wage Act in the Senate and House.)
It means policy changes so that people are not penalized the minute they do better. Right now, people can lose their heating assistance, SNAP, childcare, and housing assistance benefits, to name a few, at the slightest increase in income. This "cliff effect" ends up leaving them worse off than where they started. Instead, we need policies that gradually decrease benefits as a person's income grows, incentivizing work, adding to our tax rolls, and providing a smooth path to economic independence.
It means providing incentives to save for the future, and not just for middle- and upper-income families who get tax breaks for home ownership, IRAs, and capital gains. We need programs like the Financial Security Credit, a matched savings account for low-income taxpayers that allows families to save for financial emergencies and build a better future for their children.
We've been through a painful economic time, a tough winter. But there's cause for optimism. 50 years ago we cut poverty in half. Spring came for many. We can do it again. I call on our members of Congress to build on our past and present successes and declare a new national commitment to end poverty in the U.S. once and for all.