In the News
Remarks Delivered at Chautauqua
Thank you. I am so glad to be here at Chautauqua.
This is a special year for 50 year anniversaries regarding the intertwined issues of race and poverty. Just last week we commemorated Freedom Summer and the horrific murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, and day after tomorrow we will celebrate the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. 50 years ago as well, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act, which with his usual Texas-outsized hyperbole he called the War on Poverty -- our subject today. Personally I’d have preferred a different nomenclature, but I’m not from Texas.
Whatever the title, the question arises, how did we do? President Ronald Reagan famously said, we fought a war on poverty and poverty won. In this 50th anniversary year we hear a similar refrain. 46 million people are poor in our country now – do the critics have a point?
I want to talk with you today about how well we have done, why we haven’t done better, and what we should do as the 21st century unfolds further.
Let me say at the outset that public policy is essential but will not end poverty by itself. We need public policy at all levels of government but we also need private action in a multitude of ways -- civic leadership and action, volunteering as individuals, and the personal responsibility that all of us must exercise to succeed in work and as parents.
Just so we’re clear, the “war on poverty” itself was just one piece of legislation enacted in 1964. It is nowhere near the totality of the legislation of the 1960s, let alone the total of federal public policy, let alone what state and local governments do. Federal public policy of major magnitude began with the Social Security Act of 1935 and other New Deal legislation. New or expanded legislation of importance was enacted under every President since then, regardless of party, up to and including the Affordable Care Act of President Obama which when fully implemented in the states will cover under Medicaid as many as 16 million low-income people who were not previously eligible.
We have not failed. Poverty did not win.
Poverty in 1959 -- the first year for which we have statistics – was 22 percent. By 1973 poverty had been cut in half, to 11.1 percent – the lowest it has ever been. African-American poverty went from 55 percent to 31 percent. These figures reflect spectacular success. We had a strong economy then but the public policies of the 1960s mattered a great deal. The historic civil rights laws opened up employment opportunities to African-Americans, and other Great Society legislation made a major difference as well.
I went to Mississippi with Robert Kennedy in 1967 and saw extreme malnutrition that most Americans believed did not exist in our nation -- children with swollen bellies and running sores on their arms and legs that would not heal. These terrible facts no longer exist because of the food stamps program that emanated from that shocking day. President Nixon was the first President to send a message to Congress asking for a national food stamps program. Not Lyndon Johnson – Richard Nixon. The program has always had bipartisan support – Senator Bob Dole in the 1980s and President George W. Bush just a few years ago – bipartisan support, that is, until now. Food stamps are an enormous success -- even though you wouldn’t know it from some of the talk we hear in Washington.
If we did not have the policies and programs we have, poverty in America would be more than twice what it is now – over 90 million people instead of 46 million. Social security, food stamps, the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, housing vouchers, and much more – these are all highly successful and hugely important. We need to say so.
And there is more. Medicaid has reduced infant mortality remarkably. Pell Grants Have sent millions of people to college. SSI has created an income floor for the disabled. And more yet – Head Start. child care assistance, and legal services for the poor, to name a few.
We have done a lot. Of course, the obvious question is, if we have done so much, why are 46 million people still poor? Fair question, but the answer is not that our policies have failed. When President Clinton left office, poverty was 11.3 percent, almost the same as it was in 1973. Not bad, actually. We had held our own since 1973.
Today’s outsize numbers are an artifact of the last 13 years. There were 31 million people in poverty when President Clinton left the White House. Six million were added before the Great Recession and nine million more due to the recession. The number of people in poverty rose by almost 50 percent from 2000 to 2009, and has not yet begun to recede. Still, 46 million people in poverty. Why? For that matter, why did we only hold our own between 1973 and the year 2000?
The answer is that a lot happened after 1973 that impeded our further progress -- eight hugely significant changes that we did not foresee.
One, we became a low-wage nation. The good jobs that built the middle class for people of all races disappeared. This is the biggest single problem.
Two, family structures changed, resulting in millions of single mothers struggling to make ends meet on their meager wage. Those mothers and their children are now the poorest demographic group in the country, with poverty well over 40 percent.
Three, the quality of public education for low-income children deteriorated radically at exactly the time when having a high school diploma and a measure of postsecondary education became a must to qualify for the good jobs of the future.
Four, policies of mass incarceration locked up over two million disproportionately minority men – mostly poor to start and almost certainly sentenced to lives of poverty upon their release.
Five, due to the so-called welfare law of 1996, cash assistance for mothers and children largely disappeared, fueling an increase in extreme poverty – which means an income of less than half the poverty line, or $9,500 for a family of three -- to more than 20 million people.
Six, concentrated poverty – the poverty of place – whether in the inner city or in Appalachia on Indian reservations or in the Mississippi Delta – festered and, if anything, worsened.
Seven, the politics of race and gender, especially women of color, remained far more virulent than most of us anticipated.
And eight, the disparity between top and bottom – inequality – grew enormously over the last 40 years. We have become a society of gated communities and ghettoes, yachts and people with no boats at all, private jets and children whose wings are clipped long before they could even consider flying.
It should be apparent from this list that what happened has been devastating for tens of millions of people in our country, and it should be equally apparent that what we need to do is much more complicated than anything we hear in our current political discourse. We have done a lot and what we’ve done has made a real difference, but with the unforeseen events I’ve mentioned we’ve been up against a moving target that’s like a mirage in the desert. The goal moves further away every time we do something that brings us a little closer to it.
What do we want? What are our goals? We want a strong economy, good jobs, strong families, healthy communities, great public schools, excellent health care and mental health care and human services of all kinds, a decent safety net, and a criminal system that is truly just. And all in a nation that genuinely accords justice and respect to all.
Not too much to ask.
Let’s look in a little more depth at the problems and what we need to do about them.
The faces of poverty vary widely, but very roughly speaking, they divide into two: one, those stuck in a very low-wage job or in the midst of a short stint of poverty and need a safety net and perhaps help to regain their footing; and two, those whose poverty is persistent and perhaps intergenerational, and need far more help to get on their feet if they can do so at all. The first group is much larger than the second. It is important to keep this in mind as we go through our analysis.
First, a deeper look at the tidal wave of low-wage work. Of course we know the causes – the disappearance of the good jobs to globalization and technology, the decline of unions, and the corporatization of our politics that has stalled the minimum wage, stymied the National Labor Relations Board, and more. Low-wage work is at the heart of the problem of today’s poverty. It is the biggest difference between 1973 and 2014 – and it is not just about poverty. It is really about the hollowing out of the middle class, although it is also about poverty because well over half of the income of nonelderly and nondisabled adults in poverty comes from work – low-wage work.
106 million, a third of the population. That is the number of people with incomes below twice the poverty line, below $38,000 for a family of three. These are the people who have to decide which bills to pay each month and are a paycheck away from poverty. This is the result of the flood of low-wage work. A third of our people. Half the jobs in the country now pay $35,000 a year and that’s if you have the job full-time and all year. Half. A quarter of the jobs pay less than the poverty line for a family of four – less than $23,000. That’s sort of all right if you are in a household with two workers, but it’s a disaster for single moms and children. It’s why poverty is so surprisingly high for single moms.
Not only are there an astonishing number of low-wage jobs but, taking inflation into account, the median wage has been virtually stuck for 40 years – gaining just 7 percent in total or about a fifth of a percent a year. Mobility is nonexistent for a huge swath of the population. No wonder people are angry. Of course our economy as a whole has not been stagnant for 40 years. It’s just that all of the growth has gone to the people at the very top, and it still is. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, wrote, “Our economy won’t come back strong unless it comes back fair.” It has not. 95 percent of the growth in income since the recession officially ended has gone to the top 1 percent.
There is a stirring. President Obama proposed an increase of the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and indexing it as well. Now a growing number of states and cities are acting on their own – Massachusetts just the other day, to $11 an hour. This will get people close to the poverty line for a family of four. It is helpful where it is happening. But it is not enough, even where it is taking place.
There is much more to do and it is not all public policy. New approaches to union organizing such as picketing fast food and Walmart can help. Companies like Costco and Trader Joes are showing that higher wages pay off in less turnover and absenteeism.
But public policy is essential, too. A decent society helps those who need help with such things as child care, affordable housing, post-secondary education, and health coverage. These are not frills. They are attributes of a decent society. And all of them are income equivalents that will ameliorate the sting of low-wage work. So, too, is income supplementation through augmenting the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. And we also have to prosecute wage theft by unscrupulous employers, enforce the laws on equal pay for women, and attack the extra high costs of living that come with poverty.
The overarching economic question of the 21st century is what to do about low-wage work. We still have not succeeded in putting the victims of the Great Recession back to work but I think we will work our way back to a reasonably low level of unemployment. The bigger question is the labor market failure that has resulted in many low-wage jobs.
There is reason to think that some jobs will come back to the United States from China and India as wages go up in those countries and make us competitive again, although some will return as the auto industry has, with much more automation and fewer jobs. But this may well not be enough, although we can’t rule out an invention that changes everything. I believe the hollowing out of the middle class, as well as the unduly high level of poverty, require action not yet on the table.
We need a new paradigm in our politics and we are nowhere near having a serious public discussion. This is a wealthy nation. We can afford what we need to do if we can muster the support.
Here is my big idea, along with the thoughts I have already shared, all of which are essential.. We should create publicly financed jobs doing things that we need done. We should create jobs to renovate our deteriorating infrastructure, provide child care, and build affordable housing – to name three. And we should make the extra investment needed to educate and train currently unemployed and underemployed people as part of the program. Of course there is a but -- we will have to pay for all of that as well as the things I mentioned a moment ago, as well as reorder our national priorities. That’s why we need a new paradigm in our politics.
Putting America to work. It drops from the lips of every elected official. But paying for it escapes no one’s lips as of now. One side says reduce the taxes on the rich and they will hire everyone else. Trust the job creators. Horsefeathers. The other side – my side – says mostly nothing. They are terrified of the cost. But we are not going to get people into the middle class unless we figure out how to create the jobs that get national needs met and reduce poverty in the bargain. Really putting America to work is what should we want to do. But we need to be honest about what’s involved.
Maybe my big idea is pie in the sky – for now, anyway. Even the other steps I outlined are difficult to effectuate right now. But I would remind you that the demographics of our voters are changing and will change more. Of course people won’t vote unless candidates espouse ideas that attract them. But a politics that includes a decent investment in 0 to 5 child care and pre-k seems quite plausible to me. Lowering the cost of a college education seems quite plausible to me. These kinds of steps have the effect of raising incomes. The minimum wage is already rising in quite a few states and cities. That’s tangible and I wouldn’t have predicted it two years ago. Nor did it happen by accident. Unions and others worked hard. And the local successes are creating a momentum for national action. It shouldn’t be so hard but it is happening. Maybe my big idea will gain traction.
Seriously addressing the flood of low-wage work should be at the top of our agenda.
Second, we have to do much better at preparing all of our young people – men and women both -- for the considerable number of good jobs that are coming along in the 21st century, especially in health care and technology, and again, we have to invest the necessary funds to get the results we want. There is much to discuss about the right road for public education, but I will touch only on career and technical education and the community colleges – the road to many of the good jobs. This is not the vocational education of yesteryear that many of us remember – a dumping ground for behavioral problems and a tracking device for children of color. This era is not fully gone but now we have career academies in more than 2000 schools that work in partnership with employers on curricula for good-paying jobs that actually exist. They have been evaluated and they are successful. Expanding these pathways is a challenge everywhere but nowhere more than in the schools attended by low-income youth.
We talk – and properly so – about the cradle to prison pipeline, but an even larger crisis is the cradle to nowhere pipeline. In too many schools the pathway to work has potholes that are swallowing young people in droves. The percent of young people of color between the ages of 18 and 24 who have jobs dropped from 44 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2010. This is truly a crisis and it is not something that the federal government can solve, although more federal funding will help. Nor is it exclusively the responsibility of state and local government. It is a matter of civic responsibility – of local partnerships that include education, business, labor, other community leaders, and elected officials. Every young person deserves a school that offers a pathway to good jobs. Money is not enough. Nothing will happen without leadership and partnership in every community.
Third, strengthening families should be on the agenda of liberals as well as that of conservatives. Conservatives -- some, anyway -- say the American family has fallen apart. They say that the dominant cause of poverty is the erosion of the institution of marriage, and that if single mothers would only get married, poverty would plummet. Too many liberals simply avert their eyes. But there are real issues here – although not the simplistic ideas that some are peddling.
Nonetheless, we need to talk. Here is my view. I believe in marriage. Fathers – good fathers -- are good things, for children and for other reasons. Having a partner is a good thing. I have been married for almost 46 years and I have three wonderful sons and I think I made some difference in their lives. But, at least in principle, no one should have to get married only to have a decent income. The wholesale claim that all low-income women should get married to get out of poverty is exactly inverted. All women – all people – should be able to support their families without marrying only for economic reasons. The much bigger problem is low-wage jobs.
The prescription of the conservatives for african-American women is especially misbegotten, to put it mildly. Mass incarceration reduces enormously the number of candidates for marriage, as William Julius Wilson pointed out quite some time ago. The conservative nostrum seems to be that the man of her dreams is waiting for her just around the corner if she will only look.
All of that said, a single mom trying to juggle a low-wage job or jobs with uncertain child care, constant changes in work schedules, and complex bus routes, and more experiences phenomenal stress. For those reasons and others, too many low-income moms, especially young mothers, aren’t the parents they would like to be. l want to be clear here that I am not painting with a broad brush. But there is clinical depression. There is violence in the home. There is drug and alcohol abuse. Some of the answers are in jobs that produce more income. Reliable child care is another part of the answer. Strengthening our response to domestic violence is crucial. Mental health services and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse are important. And help with parenting for both moms and dads is vitally important is relevant for some.
Any teacher in an inner-city school will tell you stories of children whose acting out in school was directly the result of abuse at home, to say nothing of the much larger number whose vocabularies on coming to school are stunted from not having been read to at home. We need to find ways to help those parents who need help with their parenting – dignified and respectful help but help nonetheless. The children’s future is at stake. The connection of family to poverty is real and it is time that the discussion be robust and caring and not a caricature.
Fourth is a way that our public policy has made things much worse for single mothers and their children. Notice by the way how much of our discussion has been about mothers and children, from low-wage work to simplistic advice about the magic properties of marriage. We have been hearing more recently about African-American boys and men and that is important, critically important. Low-income girls need their day in the sun, too – actually much more than a day. Here is another issue about mothers and children. Deep poverty – an income of less than half the poverty line – rose from 3.3 percent of the population in 1976 to 6.7 percent in 2012. 20 million plus people, up by 8 million since 2000.
Why? The so-called “welfare reform” law of 1996 is a major reason why. We ripped a giant hole in the safety net for women and children. Cash assistance for women and children has almost disappeared in more than half the states. The old welfare system needed reform. I want to be clear about that. Robert Kennedy said in 1967 – and the NY Times put it on the front page – that the welfare system was disliked by all concerned, most importantly because it did not help people to find a job and become self-sufficient.
When President Clinton took office 14.3 million people were on welfare. That was too many. But the 1996 law made matters worse, not better. It removed people from the rolls without any serious effort to help them find work and it turned people away in large numbers when they sought help. Before the law passed, 68 percent of children in poor families were getting cash help. Now the percentage is 27. In more than half the states, fewer than 20 percent of children in poor families receive cash assistance. Wyoming has 600 people on TANF as it is now called – 4 percent of children in poor families.
Bottom line – 6 million people have incomes comprised only of food stamps, which provide help at a third of the poverty level, or about $6000 a year for a family of three. In the past the safety net for the poorest people was comprised of both cash assistance and food stamps. Now, in most of the country, TANF is for all practical purpose gone.
Contrast what happened to food stamps and welfare in the recession. The number of people on food stamps went from 26 million in 2007 to 48 million now, an increase of 22 million. TANF went from 3.9 million people to 4.4 million in the recession, an increase of 500,000. The rolls are back down to 3.6 million even though the need for help has not receded. The difference is that there is a legal right to receive food stamps and there is no longer a legal right to cash assistance. It was repealed in the 1996 law. Yet politicians continue to inveigh against welfare cheats as though the 1996 law was never enacted, and they have added food stamps to their targets, carrying on about all those people who take food stamps instead of working. Never mind that most food stamp recipients have jobs but work for wages so low that they qualify for food stamps. Case in point: Walmart. And never mind that 6 million food stamp recipients have no other income at all.
Fifth, if deep poverty is an especially troubling issue, concentrated poverty – too many poor people living in one place, whether urban or rural or, increasingly, suburban -- is another. This is the persistent and intergenerational poverty that is the hardest to tackle. It is the most politicized and the most prevalent basis of racial stereotypes – President Reagan’s welfare queen comes to mind. It is our biggest failure.
How we got there differs in the details. What we did to Native Americans is one story. What the coal barons and their lackeys did in Appalachia is another. What happened in segregated inner cities after the black middle class fled in the 1970s is a third. And what is happening in white Rust Belt towns on Lake Erie in the wake of the disappearance of industrial jobs is a fourth. But all share the downward spiral that occurs when hope disappears.
We have to make a far more serious effort to break the cycle. In the short run our most concrete results may well be to accelerate the number of young people who go to improved schools and get out of poverty through the route of education. We can already see an increase in such individual successes. But we have to do better. We need to attack the dropout factories that kill hope instead of nurturing it. Far too many young people are still being incarcerated or just being lost. But we also need to pursue avenues for people to find work in the regional economy. We need to increase the supply of affordable housing both in the neighborhood and outside. We need to tackle the cradle to prison pipeline. We need safe and healthy communities.
And we need to take on the individual behaviors – the violence in the street and in the home, the dropping out of school, the drugs, the babies born to girls who are not ready for such a responsibility, and more. The guns. Everything.
Woven into all I have discussed are the continuing issues of race and gender. African-American, Latino, and Native American poverty are all at about 27 percent now while white poverty is at about 10 percent. The crossing of race and poverty is the most dangerous intersection in America and the crossing of race, gender, and poverty is even more deadly.
On the other hand, the largest group of poor is white – at 44% it is larger than either the black or Hispanic contingent. It is worth thinking carefully about how to communicate that poverty is more white than not. As things are, the politics of the matter overstate the racial aspects of the matter in order to perpetuate the stereotype that poverty is a black thing and therefore not only an excuse not to take positive action but actually a way to practice racial politics.
The politics of poverty are still ugly and racialized and we need to strive for an honest discussion. Take school discipline as just one example. African-American children are being suspended and expelled from school at a rate three times that of whites. We need to listen, to learn the real stories. We need to break down the stereotypes. We can’t talk about poverty without talking about race.
Finally we must address the inequality as well as the poverty. The stunning ascendancy of the wealthiest people must be confronted. It has become a moral issue as well as a matter of politics and economics. The economic and political power of those at the top is not only corroding our democracy but also making it virtually impossible to find the resources necessary to see that more is done at the bottom.
At the same time, when we talk about the 1 percent and the 99 percent, we must be sure that our discussion of the 99 percent goes all the way down to the bottom. I worry that those who descry the 1 percent or the 10th of 1 percent don’t have the same passion about those at the bottom as they do about the excessive power of those at the top. We need both. Our democracy is at stake both because of the power at the top and the exclusion of those at the bottom. Our future is at stake.
When you come to Washington, you must visit the FDR Memorial. It is a powerful monument to a one of our greatest presidents. And when you go you will see words that are carved in stone, there for the ages for all to see. My favorite is the following, from his second inaugural address. He said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Thank you for the chance to share these words with you today.
Harry Holzer, Disconnected Youth: A Policy Priority after the Great Recession, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, September 17, 2012
Peter Edelman, The State of Poverty in America, The American Prospect, June 22, 2012
Harry Holzer, Can The U.S. Produce Good Jobs And Good Workers To Fill Them?, Huffington Post, June 21, 2012