“[To end poverty] the whole fabric of our society must be rewoven – and the patterns we must weave are patterns of justice, opportunity, opportunity, dignity and mutual.” –Sargent Shriver
How have we done? Not well enough but far better than some think. Paul Ryan and his cohorts say our public policies to alleviate poverty are a failure and should be drastically cut. And with more than 40 million people still in poverty some are tempted to believe him.
If we are judging the work of Sargent Shriver, we need to do it based on facts. Without the policies we have—Social Security, SNAP (formerly food stamps), Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Security Income, and housing vouchers, primarily—we would have poverty at a level something like double what we have now, something like 90 million people.
This is not a parlor discussion. It is crucial. These vital programs are on the chopping block. Their importance must be stated and restated.
Why, then, do we still have 40 million people who are counted as living in poverty?
Because America has become a low-wage nation. The good jobs of manufacturing half a century ago are gone. Half of jobs pay less than $40,000, and a quarter pay less than the poverty line for a family of four. Nearly a third of the nation, a hundred million people, have incomes less than twice the poverty line—less than $40,000 for a family of three.
This is the heart of it. The number of single mothers with children under 18 exacerbates the issue. Their poverty exceeds 40 percent. Mass incarceration takes men and women out of the community and collateral consequences keep them out of jobs, in many cases for the rest of their life. Inadequate education stunts opportunity for those who need it most. Lack of child care and affordable housing add to the problem. Race and racism wind their way through all of it. Inequality worsens steadily. And the politics of it all is hardly friendly just now.
A special problem is deep poverty—incomes below half the poverty line, below $10,000 for a family of three. The so-called welfare reform of 1996 essentially blew a gigantic hole in the already meager help we had. The old system, unsatisfactory as it was, helped nearly 70 percent of children living in poor families. Now it is less than a quarter of children in families in poverty, with some states reaching as low as 5 percent. Seven million people have income consisting only of food stamps—less than $7,000 annually, or a third of the poverty line. Counting all benefits, 15 million people live in deep poverty on any given day. This is a travesty.
Sargent Shriver gave us hope. His spirit gave us a contagious opportunity. It keeps us keeping on.
Peter Edelman is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Policy and Faculty Director, Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, Georgetown Law Center.