Edelman: Government needs to re-evaluate priorities to fight poverty

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Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Georgetown University professor Peter Edelman speaks about the nation’s responsibility to work together in order to combat poverty in America during his Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy Tuesday.

America has been fighting poverty for more than 50 years. It’s a continuous, uphill battle, but Peter Edelman insists that, despite the 46 million people living below the poverty line, Americans have not lost the fight. Keeping the beast at bay has been a success, and there is hope on the horizon. The nation just has to band together in political and civil cooperation to make it happen.

Edelman, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, spoke about the state of poverty in America at the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Monday in the Hall of Philosophy with the topic “So Rich So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.” His lecture was the first in Week Two’s theme, “With Economic Justice for All.”

To support his claim that we have not lost the fight against poverty — despite the numbers — Edelman summarized federal policy changes that have helped millions of people in our country. These began in 1935 with the Social Security Act, passed under the Roosevelt administration, and continue to the present Obama administration with the Affordable Care Act. Without programs and initiatives such as Social Security, food stamps, Medicaid, housing vouchers and Federal Pell Grants, Edelman said that we would have more than 90 million people facing poverty instead of 46 million.

These policies helped decrease and then stabilize the amount of poverty in the country between 1959 and 2001. The poverty level started at 22 percent in 1959, the first-year statistics are available, and dropped to 11.1 percent by 1973 — the lowest it’s ever been in history. When President Clinton left office, the poverty level was at a very close 11.3 percent.

That number has since increased, with 15 percent of the population living in poverty in 2012, according to the United States Census Bureau.

“Today’s outsized numbers are an artifact of the last 13 years,” Edelman said.

There have been unforeseen challenges in the battle against poverty.

 The biggest of these, he said, is that we have become a low-wage nation. The manufacturing and industrial jobs that helped shape our country and put millions of middle-class citizens to work have been steadily disappearing. Globalization, technology and the decline of unions have left a dent in the job market and in the fight for better wages.

The official poverty line paints an unclear picture of the situation.

Low-wage jobs have left 106 million Americans sitting below twice the poverty line, defined as an income of $38,000 a year for a family of three. While these people are not technically listed as poor by the U.S. Census standards, Edelman said they are still struggling.

“These are the people who have to decide which bills to pay each month and are a paycheck away from poverty,” he said.

The median wage in America has been “virtually stuck for 40 years” when inflation is taken into account, Edelman said, and upward mobility for people in most of these low-wage jobs is near impossible.

Moves are slowly being made to fix the problem. President Barack Obama proposed a federal minimum wage of $10.10, and although nothing is happening on Capitol Hill, some states are taking initiative on their own and passing higher minimum wages in their states.

Civic actions can help encourage change as well, Edelman said. Picketing places that don’t give their employees fair wages or benefits, like Walmart and fast-food restaurants, can help.

Low-wage jobs aren’t the only problem stinting poverty levels. Edelman said that a change in family structures, the declining quality of education for low-income children, and politics that create racial and gender stereotypes have all played a role. Even bigger problems have included the festering of poverty in concentrated areas and legislation passed in 1996 that severely lessened cash assistance for people in need. The inequality gap between the bottom of the poverty scale to the top 1 percent has also increased drastically in the last 40 years.    

“We’ve become a society of gated communities and ghettos,” Edelman said. “Yachts and people with no boats at all. Private jets, and children whose wings are clipped long before they could even consider flying.”

To help fix the problems and start digging people out of poverty, Edelman said our government needs to create publicly funded jobs in areas that will strengthen our nation: infrastructure, childcare, housing, healthcare and technology.

This seems like a simple solution, he said, until you ask the government to pay for it.

“ ‘Putting America to work,’ you all clap for that,” Edelman said. “It drops from the lips of every elected official. Everybody says that. But paying for it escapes no one’s lips as of now.”

Edelman called for a re-evaluation of our nation’s priorities. Our government should be investing in childcare. It should be providing training in technical schools and community colleges so young people are prepared to enter the workforce of the 21st century. It should be investing in programs to help and support single parents, especially single mothers, he said. Our federal government has been widely neglecting single moms and children, who took the biggest hit when cash assistance was taken away after the 1996 welfare reforms.

An attitude adjustment also needs to take place in areas of deep poverty, he added. Federal policy and civic participation can help keep factories going, get young people into college, find jobs and support affordable housing, but the people themselves need to undergo a change as well.

“We need to take on the individual behaviors,” Edelman said. “We need to be honest about that. The violence in the street and in the home, the dropping out of school, the drugs. The babies who are born to girls who are not ready for the responsibility, and more. The guns, everything.”

The U.S. also needs to be honest about the fact that this is not just a racial problem. Poverty affects everyone, and the largest group — 44 percent — of people in poverty is white. Areas of deep poverty are creeping up in the rustbelt cities along Lake Erie as steel mills close, Edelman said. Poverty has no color.

The wealthiest people in our nation need to be confronted as well, Edelman said. He called the problem a moral issue, as well as an economic issue.

“The economic and political power of those at the top is not only corroding our democracy, but also making it virtually impossible to find the resources necessary to see that more is done at the bottom,” he said.

In order to ultimately fix the problem of poverty, the nation needs to band together, erase their previous assumptions about poverty and simply help each other out. Yes, it will cost the government money, but, Edelman said, a responsible and civil society provides financial support and things such as childcare, affordable housing, education and health coverage to its citizens.

“These are not thrills,” he said. “They are attributes of a decent society.”