The Poverty of Policy
By Steve Suitts
Vol. 8, No. 3, 1986, pp. 1-3
In late August the casualty list for 1986 in America’s half-hearted war on poverty revealed that fourteen percent of Americans were living in “official” poverty (an annual income of below $10,989 for a family of four). As this year’s Census Bureau statistics stood four-tenths of a percent lower than a year egg, the White House proclaimed a victory for its style of free enterprise. If the numbers had increased, leading Democrats and others (with whom I have joined in the past) would have bitterly indicted the Administration’s cruel policies. Either way, the announcement has come to signify a passing moment of political theater and the continuance of very poor public policy.
The annual procession of poverty statistics each summer is becoming a ritual without meaning, something like those troop counts for the Vietnam War fifteen years ago. The harsh debate about slight changes in each set of new figures obscures the continuing tragedy of our national policies. And like the Washington officials in that war, both Republicans and Democrats in the national debate over poverty today find it is easier to count the poor than to address the policies attacking poverty. Behind the war of words, we really have a standoff in the war on poverty.
Beginning with the assumption in 1980 that poverty in America was a myth, the Reagan Administration has now stopped its direct attacks on the programs of the poor-after six years of budget cutting. In part, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act constitutes a liveable, temporary compromise for the Administration. Although programs such as food stamps and AFDC are exempt from semi-automatic reductions, the pressure to reduce the deficit at a pre-fixed rate gives the Administration plenty of opportunity to shrink further these and other poverty programs. The Democratic House of Representatives also has decided
to live with this arrangement, apparently believing it is better than the higher cuts on poverty programs in previous years.
A temporary truce is also in effect on the debate over government policies concerning the poor. Overshadowed at the moment by discussions on budget deficits and tax policies, poverty as an issue does not now exist at the White House. It will not be an issue until the Administration’s special commission on welfare reform is ready to release its newest arguments and recommendations. On this front, too, the Democrats appear to welcome the hiatus; certainly in this election year very few members of Congress have been asking the Administration what it has done for the poor lately. And to all who oppose the President’s policies on poverty, Reagan’s current posture of benign neglect seems like a vast improvement.
The momentary neglect, however, is not so very benign. Whatever the August figures show, we know that we have lost substantial ground over the last six years in reducing poverty. The effect of our neglect is becoming frightening. One child out of every five is poor. Every other black child under the age of six lives in poverty. Women now constitute the largest segment of the adult population in poverty-sixty percent of all poor over the age of eighteen. One out of every three blacks is poor; Hispanics have equally high rates of poverty. Three of four poor persons are women and children.
For Southerners the most recent economic trends offer further bad news which neglect won’t help. The two Southern states that have enjoyed a boom economy since 1980 have now gone bust. In Texas and Louisiana unemployment has reached record high levels since late spring, and food banks across these states may soon be incapable of handling the rising need-a trend already seen in many other parts of the South. While these problems in the oil states will not show up in the poverty surveys until 1987, they are real and will not be solved by official neglect in Washington.
Of course, the Administration’s silence is not forever. Within the next twelve months the White House will announce its new poverty policies when it releases a report from the presidential commission on welfare reform. While others will be busy keeping food banks and shelters open during the winter, the commission will be assembling its arsenal of facts, figures and interpretations on poverty. Once more, the public discussion on poverty will be framed and limited by the Administration’s own perspective, probably concentrating on fraud and abuse. Once more, the debate will focus on the failures of the past rather than its successes and potential. And the people of the South and the nation will have to struggle with themselves once more if they are to resist blaming the victims of poverty for its presence.
Rather than debate over the latest count on poverty, we need to construct a framework for future debates on policies. Although America seems to hold few truths to be self-evident nowadays, the trends of poverty over the last several years already tell us the direction that we can take in developing new policies. At this point there are several major propositions: First, the federal government must increase the minimum wage for all workers in the United States. Today the head of a family of three persons earning the federal minimum wage and working full-time lives $1,300 below the threshold of poverty. The current minimum wage is a subminimum wage. A fair change could remove as many as four and one-half million people from poverty and would require no additional administrative costs to the government. This is a vital anti-poverty measure that could do more than any other single, simple, act to
Second, the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws in the job market must be strengthened. In part, the extraordinary poverty among blacks, Hispanics ant women tells of the missed opportunities in the workplace too often still caused by discriminatory hiring and promotion. Fair employment practices for minorities and women mean a reduction in poverty.
Third, affordable child care must be provided for poor women who work. With so many women and children among the poor, and with the rise of single-parent families, nothing very realistic will be done in the private or public arena to reduce poverty without affordable child care. Five million children under the age of six are poor and almost six million poor are of grammar school age. Without child care, the want ads for many jobs will not and should not be answered by poor mothers with infants and young children who find working a losing proposition.
Fourth, jobs should be available to all adults who can work. Providing a job to an adult in poverty must not be a vindictive act, a punishment for being poor. A job must help the individual with income and work experience. Full employment at decent wages is the most sensible way of virtually eliminating poverty.
Fifth, non-institutional care must be available to those adults incapable of caring for themselves. A small part of the general poverty population and a large segment of street people are struggling desperately, but fruitlessly, to help themselves. Non-institutional care must be provided.
These are simple principles; they do not trespass human dignity nor propose to bankrupt the government. They suggest that personal initiative and work should be seen for the poor not as punishment but as opportunity. They are not the only principles on which a practical, compassionate poverty program can be constructed, but they go a long way in shifting the debate.
The South and the nation must summon the will and resources to arrest the current trends of poverty. We surely need to know where the poverty statistics stand, this year and in future years. But more than anything else right now, we need to enact policies that will bring people out of poverty. Among all the numbers, that is whet really courts.
Steve Suitts is executive director of the Southern Regional Council.