As the 2016 presidential race begins, our extreme income inequality and the sinking middle class is already at the center of the debate. There is a lot of talk about a “deck stacked” for the few. But the real question is whether politicians in both parties will debate poverty in America, particularly among children.
America’s poverty is shocking. More than 100 million Americans are poor or near poor in America. The Democratic convention will be held in Philadelphia where 27 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Our childhood poverty rate is about 20 percent — one in five — compared with 6.1 percent (less than one in 16) in Norway and the Netherlands. The Kids Count Data Center finds a horrifying 39 percent of African-American children living in poverty in 2013.
Growing up in poverty on harsh streets has lifelong consequences. Poor children suffer from bad nutrition. They often don’t get adequate health care. They have little access to early childhood education or summer school programs. Their schools are poor, understaffed and crowded. Not surprisingly they have far less chance of escaping poverty and moving up.
When Americans think of poverty, they usually think of black welfare mothers, even though welfare was repealed under Bill Clinton. But most poor people in America are female, young and white.
Most poor people work. They take the early bus. They work the hardest jobs, with the least security. Many are forced to work-part time, many on short-term contracts. Many don’t even know their schedules from week to week, making arranging child care almost impossible.
Among Republicans, the most common temper is to punish the poor to goad them to work. Republicans in Congress ended extended unemployment benefits, even though long-term unemployment was still far above normal rates, arguing that it rewarded laziness and created dependency. Even Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose idea of turning the Earned Income Tax Credit to a subsidy for low-wage workers was widely praised, still peddles the poisonous conservative brew of cutting poverty programs and turning them over to the states, opposing any increase in the minimum wage, and of course savaging Medicaid.
Democrats are still uncomfortable talking about poverty, but they increasingly champion low-wage workers, supporting raising the minimum wage, cracking down on wage theft, providing expanded day care, paid family leave and sick days, and in some cases paid vacation days. Hillary Clinton is likely to support President Obama’s emphasis on universal pre-K and affordable child care, both key for giving the next generation a shot.
But that is not enough. We not only have to make work pay; we have to make work available. We also need public investment targeted to areas most in need to supply jobs and hope. We need investment in public transit so the poor can afford to get to where the jobs are. We need government to act as an employer of last resort, particularly for the young, now suffering official unemployment rates of 23 to 25 percent in our urban areas.
Politicians don’t like to talk about poverty because any real solution costs money. Politicians fear voters who resent taxes that might go to “those” people. But the stark truth is that if we don’t address poverty on the front end of life with pre-K, child nutrition, education and child care, jobs and hope, we pay far more on the back end of life in prisons and health care, mental illness and violence.
The inequality debate ought to put our disgraceful levels of childhood poverty front and center. America cannot long survive two nations, one rich and one impoverished and without hope. It is time for a serious debate about poverty.