Memo to the Next President: Don't Focus on Poverty

Wednesday, October 1, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

For The Community Action New Narrative Initiative
October 2008

While acknowledging the good intentions of all who are supporting the recent calls for a presidential focus on poverty, it is critical to recognize that the nation has changed in the years since advocates made a similar plea to citizens – over 40 years ago. Even trying to revive a policy and political focus on the poor will demand significant energy and resources, and unfortunately, cannot yield the desired policy results.

Instead, we should adopt goals that establish what Robert F. Kennedy called our desired “bond of common fate” within a new national framework for advancing economic and social policy.

Advocates and other stakeholders have already reached everyone persuadable by describing policy proposals as “anti-poverty” initiatives. Yet that level of support still has not been enough to overcome opponents of legislation designed to alleviate poverty.

While many people will say they want government to do something about poverty—it is not a high priority. When the Gallup Poll asked voters to name “the most important problem facing the country” in October, only 1 percent named poverty, hunger, or homelessness. (This percentage has actually declined from 2 percent since early 2008!)

This means policymakers do not have the political space they need to take on opponents. Talking about poverty more loudly and more often will not change this fact.

Indeed, continuing to use the poverty banner will lead to failure. There are a few reasons for this:

    * The U.S. definition of poverty (strictly based on income, it’s currently about $21,000 for a family of four) is out of date and flawed, allowing opponents to limit policy solutions to a narrow and very low-income group.
    * Public understanding of the causes of (irresponsible and immoral behavior) and remedies for (responsible personal behavior) poverty hinders adoption of the policy solutions we seek to address it.
    * Defining the problem as “poverty” opens the door to a losing scenario in a legislative debate.

For example, critics have responded to Senator Obama’s concession to Senator John Edwards that Democrats adopt a goal to halve poverty in ten years. Last week, in an interview with an analyst about Obama’s policy proposals, Bill Cunningham, ranked by Talkers Magazine as one of the 100 most important talk radio hosts in the US, said:

The war on poverty was declared in the 1960s. It was lost in the 1970s. The funding continued for poverty. You know, people are poor in America…not because they lack money; they’re poor because they lack values, morals, and ethics. And if government can’t teach and instill that, we’re wasting our time simply giving poor people money.

See the problem?

It would be a much better use of the good will and support generally accorded a new President to focus on setting a new and higher standard for our nation. A better goal would go well beyond income deprivation, or even a standard that assesses what is necessary to “make ends meet”. Our real goals are higher than this, and our policy proposals already reflect a desire to do more.

Unless we want to limit policy solutions at the outset, the next President should focus instead on how to establish goals that measure our progress toward an inclusive economy that works for all of us.

Other nations have taken up this effort. Every European Union member country must have a plan for social inclusion, a multi-dimensional concept that can incorporate notions of adequate income (using a relative measure designed to assess whether the gap is getting too big for a strong nation), as well as neighborhood quality, access to the arts, education, health care, participation in civic events, housing, pensions, and other factors.

It will take hard work, high-level attention, and resources to develop a framework and narrative for this concept in the United States. We need consensus on targets to measure progress and assess the effectiveness of new initiatives.

Establishing a new cross-agency effort to develop and focus on such goals is worthy of Presidential attention and cabinet-member status.

In contrast, renewed attention to the limited target of income poverty is not. Even eliminating poverty sets the bar too low and, as a national goal, it simply will not work to achieve our shared hopes for a strong nation.

Margy Waller is executive director of The Mobility Agenda.  She served in the Clinton-Gore White House and is co-author of “Social Inclusion for the United States.”

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