Mark Levinson, writing about measurement of poverty, gives us to understand that by the most credible measures, there are currently between 69 and 100 million poor people in America. Roughly one third to one quarter of the nation is, if no longer ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished, still unable to meet a Basic Needs Budget with any consistency. Peter Edelman, Bill Clinton's onetime Assistant HHS Secretary who resigned in protest when Clinton signed the Republican welfare reform law (which Edelman reminds us, knocked 10 million people off the welfare rolls), examines why the percentage of Americans in poverty stalled for 30 years after 1970 and backslid in the past decade -- mainly because "well-paying industrial jobs disappeared to other countries and to automation" and because we allowed unions' strength to erode rather than to migrate to the kinds of jobs that have filled the void.
Edelman offers various policy prescriptions to rebuild the middle class, and the article headline insists, "..We Can Solve This." While that would doubtless be true for a government with the desire and freedom to act, it's hard to imagine this generation of Americans mustering a fraction of the political will that would be required:
What’s the agenda going forward? The heart of it is creating jobs that yield a living income. Restoring prosperity, ensuring that the economy functions at or near full employment, is our most powerful anti-poverty weapon. We need more, though—a vital union sector and a higher minimum wage, for two. We also need work supports—health care, child care, and help with the cost of housing and postsecondary education. These are all income equivalents—all policies that will contribute to bringing everyone closer to having a living income.The key words here are "this century" -- as in, it will take a century. I hope not, as I write that -- the next technological miracle may breed the next economic miracle which may breed the next political miracle...But in the America we know today, it's political death to be perceived to be devoting substantial resources to the poor. Everything must be done in the name of the middle class. Perhaps, as in the thirties, when a critical mass of the erstwhile middle class is poor, the will to address that poverty will materialize.
There’s a gigantic problem here, however: We look to be headed to a future of too many low-wage jobs. Wages in China, India, and other emerging economies may be rising, but we can’t foresee any substantial increase in the prevailing wage for many millions of American jobs. That means we better start talking about wage supplements that are much bigger than the Earned Income Tax Credit. We need a dose of reality about the future of the American paycheck.
The second big problem is the crisis—and it is a crisis—posed by the 20 million people at the bottom of the economy. We have a huge hole in our safety net. In many states, TANF and food stamps combined don’t even get people to half of the poverty line, and a substantial majority of poor families don’t receive TANF at all.
Even worse, we have destroyed the safety net for the poorest children in the country. Seven million women and children are among the 20.5 million in deep poverty. One in four children in a household headed by a single mother is in deep poverty. We have to restore the safety net for the poorest of the poor.
Getting serious about investing in our children—from prenatal care and early-childhood assistance on through education at all levels—is also essential if we are to achieve a future without such calamitous levels of poverty. In addition, we must confront the destruction being wrought by the criminal-justice system. These are poverty issues and race issues as well. The schools and the justice system present the civil-rights challenges of this century.
There's lots more good stuff in the issue, most of which I haven't read yet. In fact, it's a long time since I read more than two articles in any print magazine, but this maybe-last issue of the Prospect has inspired me to reverse that personal trend. Donate, and subscribe!