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As 44 million Americans live in poverty, a crisis grows

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By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

When the government released new U.S. Census data on poverty last week, our warp-speed news cycle paid too little attention to what these numbers tell us -- and what the government could do to tackle this moral, economic and political crisis.

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It's clear that the Great Recession battered those on the bottom most heavily, adding 6 million people to the ranks of the officially poor, defined as just $22,000 in annual income for a family of four. Forty-four million Americans -- one in seven citizens -- are now living below the poverty line, more than at any time since the Census Bureau began tracking poverty 51 years ago. Shamefully, that figure includes one in five children, more than one in four African Americans or Latinos, and over 51 percent of female-headed families with children under 6.

These numbers are bad enough. But dig deeper -- as Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman has been doing for nearly 50 years in his battle against poverty -- and the story told by these figures is even more staggering.

Edelman points out that 19 million people are now living in "extreme poverty," which is under 50 percent of the poverty line, or $11,000 for a family of four. "That means over 43 percent of the poor are extremely poor," said Edelman, who served as an aide to Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) and in the Clinton administration before resigning in protest over welfare reform that shredded the safety net. "That's over 6 percent of the population, and that figure has just been climbing up and up."

Edelman says that the number of people living at less than two times the poverty line ($44,000 for a family of four) is equally significant.

"Data shows that's really the line between whether or not you can pay your bills," said Edelman. "That has reached 100,411,000 people. That's 33 percent of the country. That's the totality of the problem -- whether you call it poverty or not."

For too long we have accepted the narrative -- promoted by well-funded conservative think tanks -- that claims people who are struggling are to blame for their troubles, and at the same time we don't have effective anti-poverty policies. So tackling the problem is seen as wasteful.

"So many people think it's their own fault," said Edelman. "They don't see the structural problem in our economy."

But with so many in poverty, that narrative has become harder to sustain during the Great Recession, and so renewed work is being done to take on poverty and its structural underpinnings.

Half in Ten, a coalition working to cut poverty by half in 10 years, is pushing Congress to renew the TANF Emergency Fund , which is set to expire on Thursday. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia have used the program to provide 250,000 low-income and long-term unemployed workers with subsidized jobs. The coalition is also pushing to make the Obama administration's Recovery Act reforms to the child tax credit and the earned-income tax credit permanent. These progressive policies keep families from falling into poverty and reduce long-term costs such as crime, public benefits and lost consumption. Estimates of costs associated with childhood poverty run at $500 billion annually, or 4 percent of gross domestic product.

And then there are the Bush tax cuts for those making over $250,000 a year, a centerpiece of the GOP's just-released "Pledge to America." Edelman says that it's difficult to see how we can help the 44 million Americans living in poverty today without that revenue.

Beyond what Congress can do immediately, it's clear that America needs a broader movement to create a more just and higher-wage economy. Edelman and other advocates say that we will need to push to make it easier for people to join labor unions through an Employee Free Choice Act or at least reduce legal barriers to organizing. The minimum wage should also be indexed to half the average wage.

"But you're still going to have a gap," said Edelman. "And you essentially have to invent some new idea of a wage supplement that starts from the premise that the so-called good jobs went away a long time ago and we've become a nation of low-wage work."

That's why 100 million people are struggling to make ends meet on less than $44,000 per year.

This devastating economic reality has the potential to create new political alliances -- and shape a 21st-century anti-poverty movement. Such a movement is urgently needed because the voices of the poor, of workers and of those struggling to get by are barely heard in the halls of power these days. Anti-poverty groups and advocates with ideas for a more equitable economy are often marginalized within even Democratic Party policy circles that seem hard-wired to reject them.

We know what needs to be done to reduce poverty. The question is who will fight that fight? And who will listen?


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