This Week in Poverty: What We Talk About When We Talk About Poverty

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann writes a weekly roundup on the topic, “This Week in Poverty.” Share your thoughts about these must-read stories and always feel free to suggest your own in the comments section.

Here’s a twist: in the second presidential debate, one candidate used the word “poverty” without saying anything about poverty; the other didn’t use the word at all but managed to speak a fair amount about it.

Make sense? Stay with me.

Governor Romney used this talking point: “There are 3 1/2 million more women living in poverty today than when the president took office”; and again, “I mentioned 3 1/2 million women more now in poverty than four years ago.” He also used what has become a staple of his campaign as a bludgeon against President Obama’s record: “There are more people in poverty—one out of six people [lives] in poverty.”

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney participate in the presidential debate at Hofstra University. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

What he didn’t do was offer any notion as to how a Romney administration would create opportunities for low-income people—people who decidedly aren’t included in his binders. Except for maybe this—in response to a question about limiting the availability of assault weapons: “But gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone—that’s a great idea because if there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically.”

Does he really think that parents—teen parents and single parents who know this struggle better than anyone—aren’t telling their children to wait to have babies? That they want better circumstances for them than they have had themselves?

He’s right that poverty rates go down for two-parent families. It’s also true that they go down for two-earner families: only 4 percent of households with more than one earner are in poverty, as compared to 24 percent of households with a single earner, according to a report last year from Half in Ten. Marriage isn’t the only route to two incomes (nor does marriage always result in two incomes). The Romney-Ryan ticket and the GOP might want to reconsider, for example, their opposition to investing in job training programs that can lead to good jobs for young people and a path to the middle class.

As for marriage, instead of simply telling people “get married,” Romney might also look at astronomical incarceration rates—especially for minority men in urban areas; low real wages at the bottom and their link to declining unionization; differences in public schools for the haves and have-nots; and racial discrimination in the job and housing markets. Attention to these macro issues would do a lot to increase hope and access to real economic opportunities, which is a great way to support strong families. Gosh, that’s a great idea, you might say.

Romney and the GOP might also consider meeting families—and single mother-headed families—where they are instead of where the GOP wishes they would be. That means investing in federal childcare assistance that currently reaches roughly one in seven families who qualify for it (tough to work when you don’t have a safe place for the kid); raising the minimum wage, which stagnates at $7.25 an hour and results in sub-poverty earnings of $15,080 for a year-round, full-time employee (in the 1960s and ’70s a worker with a full-time minimum-wage job could lift a family of three above the poverty line); reforming a cash assistance (TANF) program that reaches only 27 families for every 100 families with children in poverty, and often traps women in low-wage work rather than opening a path to a living wage; and working aggressively to close the gender pay gap.

Poverty isn’t a talking point—it’s a reality for more than half of the US population at some time before age 65, according to the Urban Institute.

For his part, President Obama did talk about poverty, even if he didn’t use what some antipoverty advocates now call “the p-word.”

“If you focus on the policy proposals and the narrative in the debate then it looks like advocates have really succeeded in getting Obama to talk about policies that address poverty—even if he’s not using the word,” Margy Waller, former senior advisor on domestic policy in the Clinton administration and currently a senior fellow at the Topos Partnership, told me. “And focusing on policies instead of words might actually be a good strategy.”

In response to the very first question from a college student about employment opportunities, President Obama spoke to the issues of low-wage work (and the majority of income from people in poverty comes from work, not benefits) and access to education.

He talked about creating “not just jobs, [but] good-paying jobs, ones that can support a family.” He commended the student for going to college but added, “I want everybody to get a great education.” He spoke of the importance of making student loans available but also the importance of access to community colleges for “young people who may have dropped out of school” and “training them for the jobs that exist right now.”

Waller noted that with regard to tax policy Obama specifically mentioned not just the middle class but “folks who are striving to get in the middle class.” This alludes to critical antipoverty work supports such as the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit—both of which would be scaled back by the GOP despite longtime bipartisan backing from the likes of Presidents Ford and Reagan.

Obama framed the issue of funding for Planned Parenthood as one of access to affordable health care—“not just contraceptive care” but also “for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings. That’s a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country.” He cited the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and advocating for pay equity as critical “because women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family. This is not just a women’s issue. This is a family issue.” He expanded on that economic argument to include “child care and the credits that we’re providing, that make a difference in terms of whether [women] can go out there and earn a living for their family…. One of the things that makes us grow as an economy is when everybody participates and women are getting the same fair deal as men are.”

Waller said research suggests that the way we usually talk about poverty—even using the words “poverty” and “welfare” themselves—“makes most people think about people who don’t work, and bad personal choices, and irresponsibility. People’s beliefs are now so hardened in that stereotype, it’s very hard to overcome even with evidence that says otherwise.”

She believes Obama is on the right track by offering “a new narrative that wakes people up and enables them to listen.”

“He’s talking about how we create an economy that is good for everyone,” said Waller. “It opens the door to focusing on the role of government policy in addressing issues like wage stagnation, and maintaining a wage and benefit floor for good jobs. It points to how we are all better off when everyone is contributing to our economy and civic life, and we have jobs in our local communities that are family-supporting.”

My preference is that politicians speak clearly and forcefully about poverty and how to fight it, and that they help set the record straight on so much of the nastiness and misinformation that is out there about low-income people.

But there was a clear winner on Tuesday night when it comes to talking about matters that matter to people in poverty. And a clear loser who used poverty talk as nothing more than a political ploy.

Child Poverty: Obama Goes on Record

At the Maryland Hunger Solutions annual conference in Baltimore this week, keynote speaker Dr. Michael Reisch, a leading social work educator in the United States and Distinguished Professor of Social Justice at the University of Maryland, said, “Children constitute the demographic cohort most likely to be poor, a phenomenon unprecedented in industrialized nations.”

Indeed there are 16 million children in poverty—22 percent of all kids—including more than one in three African-American and Latino children, and one in four children under age 6 from all backgrounds.

So it was very timely that the leaders of six child advocacy organizations wrote letters to President Obama and Governor Romney asking each candidate what he would do to address child poverty in America. There were three questions, including one that has been pushed for months by the #TalkPoverty movement: “What will you pledge to do in your first 100 days to address childhood poverty?” The other two focused on ensuring comprehensive healthcare, quality educational opportunities starting with Pre-K, and food security; and describing a “vision for how to permanently ensure that future generations of children will not have to face the specter of crushing poverty.”

In a detailed response, Obama wrote of the importance of the Affordable Care Act in covering tens of millions of currently uninsured Americans and providing children with preventative care. He singled out the importance of Head Start, public and private Pre-K, and childcare in providing “children from disadvantaged backgrounds with a strong start and a foundation for school success.” He described the importance of extending tax cuts for working families included in the Recovery Act, such as the expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, which benefit people with low-wage jobs. He pushed for infrastructure investments “to repair crumbling schools, roads, and bridges,” and passing the American Jobs Act to create 1 million jobs, and “help states keep up to 325,000 teachers.”

Obama’s long-term vision includes transforming “high-poverty neighborhoods with distressed public housing and crumbling schools into communities that are sustainable for the growth of our children.” He cited the Choice Neighborhoods programs to address housing, crime and transportation in a comprehensive way; and the Promise Neighborhoods program—modeled after the successful Harlem Children’s Zone—“where 37 communities in 18 different states already have plans in place to put education at the center of combating poverty.”

The Romney campaign informed the authors of the letter that their candidate wouldn’t respond in writing. So we’re left with—as far as the Romney-Ryan record goes—the observation that poverty is up; that there are more women in poverty now; that people in poverty are “our brothers and sisters”; and the big fat lie that Obama is “gutting the work requirement” so those very same “bothers and sisters” just get a “welfare check.”

Kudos to these six organizations for getting the most substantive comments yet about child poverty from at least one of the candidates.

The third and final presidential debate on Monday will focus on foreign policy. Child poverty is definitely a foreign policy issue as it relates to economic competitiveness and how America is viewed by the world.

As Dr. Greg Duncan—an economist and widely respected researcher on the consequences of childhood poverty—recently told me: “What’s at stake is whether America will be able to maintain its position as a leading economic power in the next generations. Not to mention that America prides itself on offering people at all levels a chance for success. Rising income inequality over the past thirty years and its attendant increases in poverty should worry not only advocates for poor people but also anyone else concerned about the future of the country.”

ADAPT Disability Rights Activists Occupy Harrisburg

I’ve written previously about the state of Pennsylvania wrongfully denying 89,000 children Medicaid coverage. It seems that’s not the only vulnerable population being hit by Republican Governor Tom Corbett’s Medicaid policies.

Three hundred disability rights activists with ADAPT demonstrated and engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience over four days in Harrisburg. They protested Corbett’s rolling back of home- and community-based Medicaid services—services put in place by both Republican and Democratic governors—that have allowed people with disabilities to live independently instead of in nursing facilities and institutions. With states across the nation facing similar cuts, Harrisburg launched ADAPT’s state-by-state “My Medicaid Matters” organizing campaign.

Over the four day period, ADAPT activists demonstrated outside of the governor’s mansion; occupied the State Capitol rotunda as well as the offices of the governor and the chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations committees; shut down the office of Secretary Gary Alexander at the Department of Public Welfare (DPW). They also held a simultaneous rally with disability rights activists in Olympia, Washington, who are facing similar cuts; and surrounded the Romney campaign office to protest the candidate’s plan to cut somewhere between $800 billion to $1.5 trillion from Medicaid over the next ten years—more than one-third of the entire federal cost of the program.

“You can’t just make cuts without understanding what good the existing money does,” said Shona Eakin of Erie ADAPT. “Our lives are not a business. Home services help my husband and I work and raise our children. The Romney-Ryan plan threatens our two children as well as us.”

The activists demanded a meeting with Corbett and members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly to talk about ADAPT’s ten-point plan for shifting Medicaid spending from institutions and nursing facilities to community-based services. The group obtained a promise of a meeting with Secretary Alexander but the governor refused to send a representative. Because previous talks with Alexander have been unfruitful and Corbett is the ultimate decision maker, activists continued their protest and eighty-three were arrested.

“Governor Corbett would rather arrest us than meet with us, even when we have identified that the state could leverage about $185 million in additional federal funds to increase the use of community-based services and supports,” said Pam Auer of Central Pennsylvania ADAPT.

I’ll report back on how the organization fares in its efforts to speak with the Corbett Administration, and on the “My Medicaid Matters” campaign as it continues around the nation.

Featured Action

Justice Bus: Thursday, October 25, 8:30 am–4 pm, 1805 W. Alabama St., Houston. A mobile protest to demand justice for labor abuses experienced by Houston workers, the bus stops at restaurants, contractor’s offices and residences of unscrupulous employers. There will be about sixty riders—workers, community members, faith leaders, students, and volunteers.

The action is designed to draw a stark contrast between the image that the city’s elected officials and business leaders project—of Houston as offering a prosperous economy, low unemployment rates, and a low cost of living—and the reality that millions of working families experience, including wage theft, poverty wages, lack of benefits, and a devaluation of their work.

Riders will kick off the Justice Bus at City Hall where they will present Mayor Annise Parker with hundreds of non-sufficient funds checks representing the $753 million dollars working families in Houston lose every year due to wage theft.

“We met with the Mayor earlier this year to ask for a legal analysis of [a] wage theft ordinance and ways in which it could be implemented,” José Eduardo Sanchez, campaign organizer with Houston Interfaith Worker Justice, told me. “While we got a positive response, we have seen absolutely no action.”

Interlude with Brain Hero


briefing on a new report: “Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons from the States,” Tuesday, October 23, 9:30–10:30 am, Room SVC 212-10 in the US Capitol Visitors Center. Sponsored by the Center on Poverty, Inequality & Public Policy, the National Crittenton Foundation, Campaign for Youth Justice, Human Rights Project for Girls, and the National Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Coalition. RSVP:  jjadvocate[at] The Center on Poverty will also host a Twitter town hall following the briefing. Join them @GtownLawPovCntr.

Florida Association for Community Action’s 3rd Annual Symposium on Poverty: Friday, October 26, 8:00am–1:00 pm, FAMU College of Law, 201 Beggs Avenue, Orlando. The event is designed to raise awareness regarding the issues of poverty in Florida and identify solutions to address its root causes. The symposium will set the stage for the development of legislation to enact a Florida Commission on Poverty.


Two students, two high schools, two divergent paths to college,” Steve Bogira

Chicago schools: even more segregated than they seem,” Steve Bogira and Jena Cutie

Group Running Racist ‘Obama Phone’ Ad Has Close Ties to Congressional Republicans,” Lee Fang

Walmart Workers Walkout,” by Liza Featherstone

Candidates’ Views On Poverty Get Little Attention,” Pam Fessler

Ohio weighs future expansion of Medicaid,” Kate Giammarise

ACLU Sues Morgan Stanley Over Mortgage Loans,” Jessica Silver-Greenberg

Ohio pushes welfare recipients to find work and exit the system,” Mark Guarino

Still No Straight Answers on Social Security,” Tim Price

Collateral Damage in the War on Women,” Akiba Solomon

Studies, briefs, and other resources

Safe, Stable Homes Lead to Healthier Children and Families: Two studies from Baltimore and Boston,” Children’s HealthWatch. The studies show that stable, affordable housing improves the health of children and the well-being of families. Children’s HealthWatch analyzed over 10,000 surveys from caregivers of young children in Baltimore and Boston. The evidence illustrates the connection between lack of affordable housing, strained budgets and poor health outcomes for children from low-income families. For example, in Massachusetts, children in families who had moved two or more times in the past year were 59 percent more likely to have been hospitalized than were children in housing-secure families. Also, children in families behind on rent were 52 percent more likely to be at risk for developmental delays compared to those in housing secure families.

The Chained CPI: What It Is and What It Means For Women,” National Women’s Law Center. The Consumer Price Index determines the cost of living adjustment (COLA) Social Security beneficiaries receive each year. Some want to use a new measurement, the chained CPI, to calculate the COLA. Proponents are calling it nothing more than a “technical fix”—it is anything but.

“LIHEAP Households,” National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA). The situation for low-income households struggling to pay their home energy costs appears to be worsening as winter approaches. Funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) has been reduced—from $5.1 billion in FY 2010 to $3.471 billion for the current fiscal year—and forecasters are predicting a colder, wetter winter. The total number of households receiving LIHEAP grants fell from 8 million in 2011 to 6.9 million in 2012. With millions of families facing the prospect of needing to choose between heating their homes and buying food, medicine and other daily essentials, the National Fuel Funds Network (NFFN) is urging Congress to take all necessary steps to provide additional funding for LIHEAP. “We ask everyone to call their members of Congress and ask them to increase funding for this important program by any means necessary,” said NFFN executive director George Coling.

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $23,021 for a family of four): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including more than one in three African American and Latino children. Poorest age group in the country.

Poverty rate among families with children headed by single mothers: 40.9 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20 million people, 1 in 15 Americans.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Youth employment: lowest level in more than 60 years.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Gender gap, 2011: women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Gender gap, 2010: women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.

People age 50 and over at risk of hunger every day: 9 million.

Percentage of US population in poverty at some time before age 65: over 50 percent.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Impact of public policy, 1964–1973: poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

Quote of the Week

“How do people who are poor and disabled get a voice, their own voice, without people speaking for them? They can’t buy entrance to conferences or fundraisers, so they have to break the door down.”
—Amber Smock, Chicago ADAPT activist

Research assistance provided by Christie Thompson.

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