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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