Cut Poverty In America In Half? New Report Shows How, Tells Why

November 3, 2011

A new report from the Half in Ten campaign takes on one of the biggest challenges of our time — how to significantly reduce poverty in America.

The challenge it addresses is actually even bigger. It envisions not merely lifting many millions of people above the poverty line, but expanding opportunity so as to grow a stronger middle class.

To this end, the report establishes three priorities for the next 10 years:

  • Create more good jobs, i.e., jobs that pay “at least a moderate income” and provide paid time off, plus health care and retirement benefits
  • Strengthen families and communities so that “all families … can raise their children in safe, healthful environments”
  • Promote family economic security by strengthening both work supports and the safety net for people who aren’t employed and also by facilitating asset building

Separate chapters for each of these, with trend analyses, recommended strategies and many, many data points. A real gold mine for advocates here.

Groundbreaking Indicators

What’s truly groundbreaking are the indicators linked to the goals. Two sets of these.

The first are benchmarks for measuring progress in poverty reduction. They include data from both the Census Bureau’s official poverty measure and the much better “supplemental measure” it’s about to issue.

Also included are some more targeted indicators from the Census reports. These will give us two perspectives on public policies.

On the one hand, we’ll see how many people were kept out of poverty by the Earned Income Tax Credit and some key public benefits.

On the other hand, we’ll see how many people fell below the poverty line due to cost burdens public policies could more effectively address, e.g., health care and child care costs.

Rounding out these indicators is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s overall food insecurity figure. This broadens the set from poverty per se to one of the major hardships it commonly imposes.

The second set of indicators are for the three top-level priorities. A total of 17 of these — eight for jobs, four for families and five for economic security.

At least some of them will be tracked not only nationwide, but for each state and the District of Columbia. An interactive map gives us baseline state-level priority indicators, plus two state-level indicators from the priority/hardship set.

In short, we’ve got an enormously ambitious agenda here — not only what’s amply laid out in the report itself, but in the commitment to tracking.

The report starts the clock, with indicators from 2010.

Going forward, we’ll have annual figures that show progress, if any, toward half as much poverty in 2020 — 23.1 million fewer Americans so poor as to fall below the poverty line. Also progress along the pathway to shared prosperity that’s mapped by the strategies.

Political Will

The leaders of the three nonprofits that founded Half in Ten say the goal is achievable. We have the knowledge and the resources — deficit hysterics notwithstanding.

We know from past experience that sensible strategies, backed by strong leadership and adequate funding, can make a big dent in the poverty rate and build a more robust, diverse middle class.

But why, with everything else going on, should we as a nation commit to such strategies now?

Half in Ten answers that they’re in our national interest because they’ll drive economic growth and long-term competitiveness in the global marketplace.

They’ll also, it says, restore trust in basic national values like the belief that hard work pays off — what we sometimes call the American Dream. Tamp down what seem to be some stirrings of social instability too, I think.

What we need — and clearly don’t have — is the political will to embrace the challenges of creating a pathway to prosperity for the poor and near-poor in our society.

Creating that will is our collective responsibility. The Half in Ten report gives strategies we can advocate, with facts and figures to support them. The ongoing tracking will help us hold our elected officials accountable.

Most important perhaps is the basic message. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”