Wanted: A ‘national conversation’ on poverty

(Pool/Reuters)

President Obama delivers his 2012 State of the Union address. (Reuters)

The Post’s Outlook editor Carlos Lozada thinks that President Obama has gone overboard with his numerous calls for a “national conversation” about this or that problem facing the country. I don’t have a problem with conversations. First comes talk, then comes action. It’s the lag time between the two that makes people weary of the former. And nowhere is that weariness more evident than in dealing with persistent poverty, especially children.

The topic received scant attention on the presidential campaign trail or at any of the debates. When a group of children’s advocates sent a letter  to President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney last fall asking for their plans to address child poverty, they initially got no response. But Obama did deliver a substantive response a couple of days before the second debate.

As I noted last October, what the president planned for a second term was mostly a continuation of what he started in his first term. Still, more needs to be done. Apologies to Lozada, but it’s going to require a national conversation. One that builds consensus and the political will needed to move from talk to action (of some kind). And the only way that can happen is if the president calls for one.

During his first State of the Union address in 1964, President Johnson launched a “War on Poverty.” Head Start is one of its enduring legacies. Today, a coalition of 16 advocacy groups, including First Focus, Save the Children and Children’s Health Fund, is calling on Obama to use his State of the Union address on the 12th to call on Congress to establish a new National Commission on Children.

The first such national commission was established by President Reagan and Congress in 1987. The bipartisan panel examined the state of the nation’s children and their families and devised policies and programs to improve their lives. In 1991, the commission released its report which resulted in the creation of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit and the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

The presidential bully pulpit is a powerful platform. We’ve seen it at work on same-sex marriage, immigration and gun violence. And it’s about time Obama used it on an issue as far-reaching as poverty. It’s not like it would be a heavy lift for him. His October letter to anti-child-poverty advocates demonstrated an understanding of what’s at stake. Also, it wouldn’t cost Obama and the federal government a dime.

If the president calls for a National Commission on Children the money to fund its activities would be completely privately funded. In fact, the coalition of 16 advocacy groups already has a $1 million pledge from a single donor to help finance the effort. So, there is money to finance a new round of talks that could lead to new action to combat child poverty. All that’s needed is for the president to say loudly and clearly that the new group’s goals are a priority. The State of the Union would be the perfect venue.

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