By Peter Edelman a law professor at Georgetown University, co-director of the University’s Joint Degree in Law and Public Policy, and Faculty Director for the school’s Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy. Edelman is also the chair of the American Constitution Society’s Board of Directors, and will be signing copies of his book at the ACS National Convention next week.
It’s never hard to find a policy hook to discuss poverty in the United States, but one we have just now is the recent budget for FY 2013 proposed by Paul Ryan and the House Republicans which proposes to slash virtually every program that helps low-income people in our country. My new book is called So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in the United States. Paul Ryan and colleagues are definitely a policy hook for talking about my book.
I could just say that people like Paul Ryan and the House Republicans are the reason why it’s so hard to end poverty in our nation. That’s not wrong, but the story is much more complicated than that. We have a long list of successful programs without which we’d have 40 million additional people in poverty over and above the 46 million we have now. Don’t let anybody tell you that nothing works. Paul Ryan’s line is that if we have 46 million people in poverty now, it’s because the programs are a failure – because social security, food stamps, the earned income tax credit, housing vouchers, and Medicare and Medicaid are failures. And some people – all too many -- take him seriously.
No, we have 46 million people in poverty and tens of millions more struggling every day to make ends meet for other reasons. There are two problems here, actually: the millions who work as hard as they can and can’t get out of poverty or near-poverty, and the smaller (but not small) group who are virtually destitute, with incomes below half the poverty line, or below $9,000 for a family of three. The first group – whose basic problem is the huge number of low-wage jobs now extant in our economy – now constitutes a third of the population, 103 million people who have incomes below twice the poverty line (below $36,000 for a family of three). The second – those in deep poverty – now number 20.5 million, up by almost 8 million since 2000. Both numbers are staggering, each in its own way.
Why the first problem? Why 103 million people in low-wage jobs? Because, 40 years ago, wage statistics began reflecting the disappearance of well-paying industrial jobs and their replacement by low-wage service jobs. In today’s dollars, half the jobs in the country now pay $34,000 or less a year, and that’s only if one has the job full-time and all through the year. And the wages for those jobs have been stuck for four decades, now paying only 7 percent more than they did then – going up a fifth of a percent a year. Some people coped by sending a second worker out to work, but there is a second problem – the large increase in the number of single mothers over the period, who have no second possible worker to go out and get a job. No wonder 42.2 percent of single-mother families with children under 18 are poor.
Let’s be clear that the economy didn’t get stuck. It grew, but all of the gains have gone to the people at the top. Nor is this only the story of the poor at the bottom end. It’s the long-running story of a third of the American people.
Why the second story? In significant part it’s because of the near-disappearance of cash assistance for mothers and children in many states. The politicians are still crowing about the “success” of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, the name for welfare now, when it barely exists any more in much of the country. Wyoming has 644 people – mothers and children – on TANF, 4 percent of the children in poor families there. Nineteen states have fewer than 20 percent of their poor children on TANF. The figure was 68 percent nationally before TANF was enacted; it’s 27 percent now. The result is that there are 6 million people whose only income is from food stamps. How’s that for a stunning figure? Food stamps provide an income of a third of the poverty line, or about $6,000 for a family of three.
The bottom has dropped out of our safety net. This is the most urgent single problem we face.
There’s lots more, of course. Race and gender disproportionalities exacerbate the problems. Investing in our children is a huge part of the challenge. Concentrated poverty – poverty associated with place, the poverty that tends to be persistent and intergenerational – presents especially tough problems.
And then there’s the problem of how we muster the will to make progress. Right now the challenge is stopping the threat to what we already have. This is a moral issue but it’s also an issue of action in our own self-interest. Seeing that work that produces a decent income is widely available and that our people are prepared for the jobs of the future is totally in our self-interest in multiple ways, beginning with the fact that it is cost-effective. But there is an even more fundamental reason to act. The concentrations of power and wealth that we are seeing at the top and the sense of political exclusion and impossibility that we are seeing at the bottom threaten a new order that would hard to characterize as the animating ideal of our country. At the end of the day, our democracy is at stake.