Talking About Poverty With Greg Kaufmann

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Greg KaufmannGreg Kaufmann has been writing the “This Week in Poverty” column for The Nation since January. We’ve been reprinting it on for the past couple months. Kaufmann says he started writing the column because he felt that poverty doesn’t get adequate coverage in the media and he hopes that writing about the issue will help elevate solutions, the voices of people living in poverty, and give readers opportunities to get involved. We reached him to talk with him about the current state of poverty in the United States.

Theresa Riley: Last month’s numbers from the U.S. Census showed poverty numbers holding steady from 2010 to 2011. That’s not exactly good news since poverty levels are the worst they’ve been in 50 years. What should people be paying attention to in these numbers?

Greg Kaufmann: I think the biggest takeaways from the recent numbers are that only the top quintile saw its income rise in 2011; the bottom four-fifths all saw a decline. Also, only the bottom and the top saw growth in the number of full-time, year-round workers — which speaks to the proliferation of low-wage jobs and difficulty reaching the middle class. In short, I think the numbers speak to the fact that we need to stop looking at poverty as a separate phenomenon from the rest of the economy — an economy with a proliferation of low-wage jobs and a weak and inequitable recovery. Finally, the number of people living below twice the poverty line — less than about $36,000 for a family of three — rose from 103 million to 106 million Americans. That’s a better representation of who is struggling in this economy than the 46 million people below the poverty line. Even at two times the poverty level people are making impossible choices between food, housing and healthcare — and forget about savings for college, for example.

Bill Ricker, 74, sits at the kitchen table of his trailer home, in Hartford, Maine. Ricker, who has two college degrees, was injured in the late 1980s and hasn't worked since. Now he receives food stamps and heating fuel assistance and gets donations from a local food pantry. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Riley: What are some common misconceptions about poverty in America?

Kaufmann: That poor people don’t work and don’t want to work. That most people on assistance are African American (most are white). That we waged a war on poverty and poverty won (poverty would be twice as high as it is today — nearly 30 percent — if it weren’t for government assistance). That the solution to families headed by single mothers is marriage. And, generally, there is a lack of recognition that most people who turn to welfare are either working low-wage jobs, are temporarily unemployed, or they need safe, affordable childcare in order to work and it’s not available.

Riley: Besides the financial crisis, are there other systemic problems that are factors in the high rate of poverty?

Kaufmann: The proliferation of low-wage jobs is a huge problem. I think the fact that TANF (cash assistance) is administered differently by 50 states — and we have no uniform minimum benefit or eligibility standards — increases poverty, and also deep poverty. Prior to welfare reform for every 100 families with children in poverty 68 received cash assistance. Now it’s just 27, and the benefit averages about 30 percent of the poverty line. I think the lack of affordable childcare — federal assistance for childcare currently reaches about one in seven of those who are eligible — is a huge problem for workers and also in terms of improving outcomes for children in poverty.

Riley: Why aren’t people outraged by these numbers? What do you think it will take to capture the public’s attention?

Kaufmann: You got me. I thought the recession would make people more sensitive to how easy it is to fall into poverty. I don’t think that’s happened — in fact, it seems like it’s probably increased the scapegoating. I’ve always believed it will take presidential leadership to a) educate people about poverty; and b) take aggressive action to eradicate poverty. But these days I’m thinking it’s more about us educating, agitating, organizing, and pushing — not waiting on a president. To that end, I want to do a much better job finding out and reporting on what’s happening at the community level.

Riley: You started a twitter campaign #TalkPoverty encouraging people to ask the candidates questions about poverty. Any luck getting them to answer the questions?

Kaufmann: We developed the #TalkPoverty idea in early August, knowing that the campaigns would not be talking about poverty. The Twitter initiative is about pressing them on very specific, substantive questions so they can’t just respond with platitudes and generalizations. The Obama campaign has said it will respond to at least some of the questions. (See their response.) The Romney campaign expressed openness initially, then informed me last week it will not participate — which, I know, is shocking.

Riley: Who are the visionaries — the people who are thinking creatively and realistically about how to overcome poverty?

Kaufmann: These days, I’m very much drawn to both of the Edelmans — Peter and Marian Wright. I think Angela Glover Backwell is a powerful speaker with a clear vision. I love what Witnesses to Hunger is doing — women in poverty using photographs and their own testimonials to advocate for change at the local, state and federal levels. I’ve been following the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for about five years now, and I’m constantly astounded by what they are achieving with farmworkers — and the collective way in which they go about their work. I’m inspired every day by advocacy groups like Half in Ten, the Coalition on Human Needs, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, who are constantly pointing out the priorities and choices we are making and what a difference they make in people’s lives, for better or worse. And then there are the thinkers — at places like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, EPI, CEPR, CLASP, Urban Institute — I could really go on and on. But again, I’m determined at this point to really speak as much as possible with people living in poverty. The three students I talked to last month who have dealt with poverty inspired me as much as anyone in the past year.

Riley: What are a few specific measures that could be taken to reduce poverty in America?

Kaufmann: Raising the minimum wage and tipped minimum wage. For most of the ’60s and ’70s a full-time minimum wage job could lift a family of three above the poverty line, about $17,900 today. Not even close now. If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation it would now be $10.55 and pay a full-time worker $21,000 annually. Why did politicians index individual campaign contribution limits to inflation but not cash assistance or the minimum wage? Something is very wrong with that picture.

Speaking of cash assistance, TANF needs serious reform if we really want to help people obtain good jobs that pay a living wage, or get the help they need if they are unable to work.

We should substantially increase spending on childcare and early education — we know that will produce better outcomes for children and increase work opportunities for parents.

The Recovery Act improved both the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. As a result, the federal EITC kept 6 million people out of poverty in 2009, half of them children. It also kept more than 3 million children out of poverty in 2010. In 2009, the Child Tax Credit protected approximately 2.3 million people from poverty, including about 1.3 million children, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. These tax credits are under fire and need to be protected.

Finally, we should reform the unemployment insurance system so it reaches more low-wage workers.

Riley: You mentioned earlier that without government assistance, poverty would be twice as high, at nearly 30 percent. A lot of the rhetoric during the campaigns has dealt with eliminating public assistance. What would this mean for our country? What does an America with 30 percent of its people living in poverty look like?

Kaufmann: Our poverty rates are already higher than other high-income countries. I would think a country with that kind of poverty is going to see a lot more crime and social unrest. I know I would do anything to feed my own kids, and if there aren’t opportunities out there and there’s a sense that political leadership doesn’t give a damn about you — I think people will do what they have to do. But I would rather flip that and think about the positive impact we would see if we truly looked out for our brothers and sisters: when you do right by people, you feel stronger as a person and stronger as a nation. You build a sense of community, momentum and the confidence that we are all in this together. No person is viewed as “less than,” and no one is dismissed as not worth fighting for.

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