Clare Higgins: The young faces of poverty

Last modified: Friday, January 24, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Fifty years ago this month, Lyndon Baines Johnson declared a “War on Poverty.” Twenty-four years later, Ronald Reagan declared that “poverty won.” Well, I’m not sure it makes sense for politicians to declare war on anything. Poverty, drugs, crime, cancer, terror — it trivializes the reality of war and reduces multi-faceted issues to a simplistic win/lose pronouncement, as opposed to the nuanced discussion the issues and the country deserve.

In reality, poverty has declined by more than one-third since 1967 according to the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. The Supplemental Poverty Measure used by the council takes into account the governmental spending that grew out of the War on Poverty. It also reflects other programs initiated by both parties over the last five decades. The Earned Income Tax Credit (a Gingrich favorite), the Section 8 housing program (introduced by Nixon), the indexing of Social Security (also Nixon) and the expansion of the food stamp program (Nixon, Bob Dole, George W. Bush) all have helped lower the percentage of the population living in poverty.

Because of the creation of Medicare and the indexing of Social Security, the number of older Americans living in poverty has been considerably reduced — the rate went from 35 percent in 1960 to 14.8 percent in 2012. Food stamps (SNAP), fuel assistance and Medicare Part D have made the lives of older Americans more secure than they were in 1960.

But not everything is so rosy. Children are our poorest age group — they are 24 percent of the population but 34 percent of those living in poverty. And the youngest children are the poorest children. Poor infants, toddlers and preschoolers are 49 percent of all children under six years old. Children were 60 percent more likely to be poor than adults aged 18-64, and nearly 2½ times more likely to be poor than older Americans.

Homelessness for families continues to increase — because there is no state in this country where a person earning minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment and the other necessities of life like food, utilities, and transportation.

In 1968, a full-time, minimum wage worker earned enough to stay above the poverty line. That’s not the case today. Throughout the 1960s, a minimum-wage worker earned about 50 percent of what an average American wage earner earned. Today it’s more like 37 percent.

We rank near the top of the advanced nations in income inequality, infant mortality and child poverty. However, most of the other advanced nations saw their incomes rise; our median disposable income went down by 4 percent from 2000 to 2010.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The rate has quadrupled over the last 30 years. And the “war” on drugs? It filled our jails, disproportionately with African-American and Latino men. African-Americans are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences than white defendants and are 20 percent more like to be sentenced to prison for the same offenses.

And we know that segregation, both by income and by race, affect a child’s ability to do better than their parents. But across the country (and our Valley), neighborhoods and schools are becoming more segregated — not less.

Reagan’s heirs — Rubio, Paul, Ryan et al. — have taken up his one-dimensional assertion that poverty won and use it as an excuse to discount these very real issues of poverty, income inequality and the lack of upward mobility that challenge the United States in the 21st century.

So, what can we do to reduce the number of people living in poverty today? Well, we could raise the minimum wage. In Massachusetts, 581,000 of the lowest-paid workers, many of them parents, would get a long overdue raise.

We could welcome affordable housing into our communities. We could expand nutrition programs like WIC and SNAP. We could extend unemployment benefits.

And we could stop building jails and erect more childcare centers instead. Here in the state, a recent Commonwealth magazine article reports the need to spend $1.3 billion on space for 10,000 new beds in state prisons and local jails. After many years of work, childcare advocates were able to get $45 million dedicated to building childcare sites. That’s about 3.5 percent of the prison expansion cost.

We could do some of these things. And we could challenge ourselves to find other ways to reduce poverty. But let’s not call it a war. Because poverty doesn’t lose — poor people do.

Clare Higgins of Northampton, the city’s former mayor, is executive director of the nonprofit Community Action! of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Regions. She writes a monthly column and can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.