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50 Years After the War on Poverty, Will the Middle Class Become the New Poor?

If destructive policies continue, more Americans will come to know poverty firsthand.

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Former President Jimmy Carter has said that the American middle-class is beginning to look like those who lived in poverty when he occupied the White House. He attributed this reduced quality of life to the rise in tax breaks for the wealthy, an insufficient minimum wage, and electoral districts drawn to maximize political polarization.

Poverty For All?

New research shows that four out of five U.S. adults will struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives. What’s especially interesting is that the face of poverty is changing. You are still more likely to be poor if you are black or brown, but census data show that race disparities in the poverty rate have significantly narrowed since the 1970s. By the time they turn 60, a whopping 76 percent of whites will experience economic insecurity, defined as a year or more of periodic joblessness, reliance on government assistance like food stamps or income below 150 percent of the poverty line.

You read that correctly. Three out of four white people will get a chance to know economic panic before they reach retirement age.

The thing is, we know how to fix this. We’re not starting from scratch, as we did in the Great Depression. The tests of time have demonstrated that when the government invests in its citizens, society and the economy are rewarded many times over. There are a few signs that the message is getting across. For example, increasing the minimum wage has growing support. But a great deal more is required if we want to avoid a giant — and wholly unnecessary — social experiment in poverty creation. Here are a few suggestions for a new anti-poverty agenda:

  1. Make the rich pay their fair share by ending unfair tax breaks.
  2. Expand Social Security, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others have demanded.
  3. Protect people from going hopelessly into debt through medical expenses . Obamacare has failed to put a tight lid on potential total medical costs. Eventually, we must join the civilized world with single payer healthcare.
  4. Increase state-supported education. It’s absurd that people have to go into debt just to pay for their educations.
  5. Strengthen regulation so irresponsible companies do not rob ordinary Americans.
  6. Restore the rights of workers, like collective bargaining and protection from wage theft.
  7. Understand that austerity policies do not work, and only exacerbate economic woes.
  8. Aggressively attack unemployment and remember the lesson learned in the Great Depression: when the private sector can’t come up with jobs, the government must fill the breach.
  9. Protect the reproductive rights of women.
  10. Protect civil rights, such as access to voting, in places where such rights are under attack.

As soon as you say the word “poverty,” certain beliefs kick in. On the political right, the word conjures notions of bad choices and personal defects, and sometimes, race. On the left, people think more of hard circumstances and blocked opportunity. Whatever our politics, if we stay on the present course it's less likely that we will be able to think of poverty as something distant from our lives.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.