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Poverty Reduction? Try a New Economic Vision for the U.S.

We need a vision of what Robert F. Kennedy called a "bond of common fate" in a new framework for advancing economic and social policy.
 
 
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LONG before the onset of the current economic slide, some Washington insiders called on government to set a goal of reducing poverty. While recognizing the good intentions, we must acknowledge what the recent election proves: Changes in our nation in the years since citizens heard a similar plea - more than 40 years ago - require a new vision for the economy.

Any effort to revive a policy and political focus targeted specifically on the poor will demand significant energy and resources and, unfortunately, can't yield the desired policy results.

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

We've already reached everyone persuadable by describing policy proposals as "anti-poverty" initiatives. Yet that level of support still hasn't been enough to overcome the opponents.

While many people will say they want government to do something about poverty, it isn't a high priority. In October, when the Gallup Poll asked voters to name "the most important problem facing the country," only 1 percent named poverty, hunger or homelessness. (The percentage has actually declined from 2 percent since early 2008.)

This means policymakers don't have the political space they need to take on opponents. Talking about poverty more loudly and more often won't change this fact. Indeed, continuing to use the poverty banner will lead to failure. There are a few reasons for this:

* The federal definition of poverty (based strictly on income, it's currently about $21,000 for a family of four) is out of date and flawed, allowing opponents to limit policy solutions to a narrow and very low-income group.

* Widespread impressions of poverty's causes (irresponsible and immoral behavior) and remedies (responsible personal behavior) hinder 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 Sen. Obama's concession to John Edwards late in the primary season that Democrats adopt a goal to halve poverty in 10 years. In November, in an interview about Obama's policy proposals, Bill Cunningham, ranked by Talkers Magazine as one of the 100 most important talk radio hosts in the U.S., said:

"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 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 narrow the list of solutions at the outset, the new 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 has a plan for an inclusive society, a multidimensional concept that incorporates not only notions of adequate income (using a relative measure designed to assess whether the gap is getting too big for a strong nation), but also neighborhood quality, access to the arts, education, health care, participation in civic events, housing, pensions and other factors.

IT WILL take hard work and high-level attention to develop a framework for this concept in the U.S. We need consensus on targets to measure progress and assess the effectiveness of new initiatives.

Establishing a new wide effort to develop and focus on such goals is worthy of presidential attention and Cabinet 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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