This Week in Poverty: An Antipoverty Contract for 2013?

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.

Students line up to be served lunch at the Thatcher Brook Elementary School in Waterbury, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
Students line up to be served lunch at the Thatcher Brook Elementary School in Waterbury, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

This past year I’ve had the opportunity to cover the antipoverty movement — and I do believe it’s a movement — it’s just a little too much of a well-kept secret right now.

But I think in 2013, the people and groups at the forefront of antipoverty thinking and action are poised to reach a much wider audience, and gain far greater popular support.

That’s in part because the movement is led by organizations and individuals who have been fighting poverty for decades, and they offer solutions that are grounded in empirical data and the everyday experiences of millions of working Americans and families.

In contrast, the opposition to antipoverty reform relies largely on tired stereotypes, myths and prejudices — that low-income people are lazy and don’t want to work; that they only want handouts, or to live off of welfare; that antipoverty policies have failed; and, most recently, that we can’t afford these investments.

But an economy that is short on opportunity and concentrates wealth in the hands of a few is coming into focus. The interests of low-income people and a shrinking middle class are converging — everyone wants fair pay, a shot at a good education and an economy defined by opportunity and upward mobility.

People are beginning to recognize that we have a proliferation of low-wage work — over 25 percent of the jobs in the nation pay less than the poverty line for a family of four, and 50 percent pay less than $34,000 a year. It’s no wonder that 28 percent of all workers last year earned wages below the poverty line, and that more than 70 percent of low-income families and half of all families in poverty were working in 2011. (Low-income defined as living on less than 200 percent of the poverty line, or less than approximately $36,000 annually for a family of three — which now constitutes 106 million people, more than one in three Americans; poverty defined as living on less than $18,000 annually for a family of three, which now describes more than 46 million Americans.) People are looking for answers.

Currently, the antipoverty movement is largely in sync as it tries to protect programs that are vital to basic human needs during the fiscal debate. But I think there are things it can do in 2013 — after the budget debate — to reach a wider audience and bring more people into its fold.

One possible change — or more like a tweak: many seem to focus on the lack of will in our political leadership to fight poverty; instead the primary focus might be on what the movement itself is doing to create political will.

What is it doing to make itself more visible? How is it creating new relationships between low-income and higher-income people? At any given conference on poverty-related issues, are the people who know poverty first hand presenting, leading, educating and organizing? At a congressional or local hearing on food stamps, TANF, SSI or childcare — is the movement doing whatever it can to ensure that the people who have actually experienced the system are testifying? Are the more “white-collar” organizations in the movement going into low-income communities to join people and groups who areorganizing on the ground? Are these organizations showing up and also providing resources to protect homes, strengthen schools and neighborhoods and stand with low-wage workers for better jobs? How are we coming together — rich, poor, and in between — and how are we working in silos? How are we speaking — or failing to speak — with a unified voice?

I also believe if the movement can coalesce around a simple, clear and concise antipoverty agenda — an Antipoverty Contract for 2013 — it can engage new audiences and grow significantly. Choose four or five key policies that are easily grasped and in sync with most people’s values, and forge new alliances around them. Whether or not the contract includes a group’s particular issue, hopefully groups will take a leap of faith and help push it forward, knowing that it might lead to a stronger movement and broader and deeper reforms down the road.

Here is one possible Antipoverty Contract for 2013. I have no idea if these are the right choices — and there are some notable absences — on full employment, housing and education, to name a few.

But I hope this draft serves as a conversation starter among organizations, community groups and people at the forefront of these fights — and that a core might emerge to coalesce and organize around a clear, focused antipoverty contract this year that might serve as a compelling organizing tool.

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  • paula curry

    we have to get out of the wars and we have to get out of prison. these 2 expenditures are sapping our funds.
    1. no more foreign war – bring home our troops – close quantanamo – no more drones
    2. legalize mariuana – establish new correct programs that are reform based rather than punitive – no provitized prisons for profit
    3. SS payments on 100% of all income

  • Joan

    In the 1970′s, wages flatlined and people began to use credit/debt to compensate. We HAVE to reverse that by tagging the minimum wage to GDP or some other income measure which relates higher incomes -all income levels-to each other by percentages.

  • http://twitter.com/Prof_W_ Prof W

    • Increase taxes on the top 4% and close tax loopholes

    • Stop giving tax breaks to corporations that outsource jobs to foreign countries and, instead, impose taxes for outsourcing (and for attempting to hide assets in foreign nations)

    • Require that profitable corporations pay their workers a livable wage (See: Low-Wage Workers Employed Mostly by Large Highly Profitable Corporations: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/19/low-wage-workers-_n_1687271.html )

    • Impose taxes and sanctions on profitable corporations which pay so low that they provide their employees information on how to obtain Food Stamps, such as Wal-Mart

    • Investigate and sanction companies that incorrectly classify workers as independent contractors, in order to avoid paying payroll taxes, unemployment compensation, etc., such as colleges

    • Investigate and sanction companies that decrease worker’s hours, in order to avoid paying for ObamaCare, such as universities and retail chains

    • Establish jobs programs for employment with livable wages

    • Workers’ rights are currently very limited and should be expanded

    • Provide government support for labor unions

    • Use means-test to eliminate Social Security pay-outs to the affluent who don’t need SS income to survive

    • Require that for-profit and non-profit charter and voucher schools taking public funds pay their superintendents and executives no more than what public workers in similar education positions earn

    • Include provisions and regulatory oversight that prevent corporations that are bailed-out by public funds from using those monies to pay bonuses and outlandish salaries to their executives

  • MaxI

    It’s the Billionaires…..they are the problem, because they hoard all the money. The New York Times seems to be catching up a little. Maybe there is a little hope here.

    Inequality Is Holding Back the Recovery

    By JOSEPH E. STIGLITZ

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/19/inequality-is-holding-back-the-recovery/

    Thom Hartmann’s No Billionaires Campaign: http://www.nobillionaires.com/

  • http://www.facebook.com/joan.sutherland.33 Joan Sutherland

    “… staring dumbfounded at the lessons unlearned in Britain, Europe and the United States, it strikes me that the entire structure of neo-liberal thought is a fraud. The demands of the ultra-rich have been dressed up as sophisticated economic theory and applied regardless of the outcome. The complete failure of their world-scale experiment is no impediment to its repetition. This has nothing to do with economics. It has everything to do with power.” George Monbiot

    And because it has to do with power rather than economics, nothing will change economically until a power rises against globalism capable of changing or defeating it.

  • Ray Belford

    I live in a community that has many manufacturing jobs that pay well above minimum wage. However, they are constantly having trouble finding employees with the right job skills and who can pass a drug screen. Many working poor and working two or three part time jobs to get by and most have children. Therefore, they don’t have the opportunity to attend classes that will improve their job skills. We need to find a way to help people who are caught in this trap by churches and other organizations providing evening child care and financial support for short periods of time, such as six months to a year, so those who want to improve their situation can get trained in machining, welding, electronics, and maintenance. We also need more resources in helping people battle drug addiction.

    We also must not forget that we have many elderly people who daily have to choose between paying utilities, food, and prescription drugs. Many of our elderly are from an era of self-sufficiency and have difficulty in bringing themselves to seek help.

    Not enough people who can help never really see the face of poverty in their communities, except for the homeless. Here’s an idea. Why don’t churches do mission work in their own communities, rather than travel to other states to weatherize homes, put in ramps, repair roof leaks, of help in soup kitchens? Perhaps if we could come face-to-face with people living in poverty in our own community our eyes might really be opened to the need for finding solutions.

  • ALTON HAYCRAFT

    In 1973 my father was crippled for life on the job at Fort Knox Ky. due to equipment malfunction. He was never able to work again and was put on worker’s compensation. A bean counter convinced my uneducated father that a retirement pension with a “huge scheduled reward” would be better for him and his family…He was awarded 412 dollars a month..after 27 years in Civil Service and 3 tours of active duty in the U.S.Army.There were 7 of us children and I was 11 years old. There weren’t all these noble programs like today to keep people from starving.
    I got a job from a man who initially tried to run me off the job site by having me operate a steam driven jackhammer. I held onto it for 12 hours the first day…I was barely 12 years old. I weighed 91 pounds..the jackhammer 93.

    We eventually wound up in a small ramshackle house in West Point,Kentucky. And, eventually..like many times before..our utilities were cut off for over a year, except for water. Humans must have water. I remember working in the garden before daylight…digging potatoes and pulling onions..before work… I would cook them together over a perpetual flame from a methane vent in the back yard. I remember being so grateful for that flame…
    I quickly discovered afterward, people can ‘see’ the ‘poor’ on you when it’s happening. There is a disdain and a turning away. Opportunities are reserved for others…because apparently poor people are from ‘bad stock’. Then Affirmative Action came along.There are droves of underprivileged white men who were cut off from a college education to make room for the minorities and women. Not my opinion..it was a necessary fact. The progression of Reaganomics finished what few opportunities there were…and on..and on…

    I am one of your biggest fans Mr. Moyer. I trust your word before I would any other journalist. That to me is the biggest compliment I can offer. People would like to hear the story of my siblings and I…many have cried who have.
    1) Impose tariffs on imported manufactured goods.
    2) Repeal the Taft-Hartley Act.
    3)Make privately owned prisons unconstitutional.
    4)End the miserable failure of the war against pot. (How to you completely eradicate a plant?)
    5)Raise the minimum wage.
    6)10% flat tax.
    7)Repeal Right to Work legislation. 8) Indict McConnell and others like him for treason against the people he was elected to represent.
    .9)Make it unconstitutional for a person’s right to vote to be taken away.