Ronald Reagan famously said, "We fought a war on poverty and poverty won." With 46 million Americans -- 15 percent of the population -- now counted as poor, it's tempting to think he may have been right.
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Look a little deeper and the temptation grows. The lowest percentage in poverty since we started counting was 11.1 percent in 1973. The rate climbed as high as 15.2 percent in 1983. In 2000, after a spurt of prosperity, it went back down to 11.3 percent, and yet 15 million more people are poor today.
At the same time, we have done a lot that works. From Social Security to food stamps to the earned-income tax credit and on and on, we have enacted programs that now keep 40 million people out of poverty. Poverty would be nearly double what it is now without these measures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. To say that "poverty won" is like saying the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts failed because there is still pollution.
With all of that, why have we not achieved more? Four reasons: An astonishing number of people work at low-wage jobs. Plus, many more households are headed now by a single parent, making it difficult for them to earn a living income from the jobs that are typically available. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children -- i.e., welfare -- in much of the country plays a contributing role, too. And persistent issues of race and gender mean higher poverty among minorities and families headed by single mothers.
The first thing needed if we're to get people out of poverty is more jobs that pay decent wages. There aren't enough of these in our current economy. The need for good jobs extends far beyond the current crisis; we'll need a full-employment policy and a bigger investment in 21st-century education and skill development strategies if we're to have any hope of breaking out of the current economic malaise.
This isn't a problem specific to the current moment. We've been drowning in a flood of low-wage jobs for the last 40 years. Most of the income of people in poverty comes from work. According to the most recent data available from the Census Bureau, 104 million people -- a third of the population -- have annual incomes below twice the poverty line, less than $38,000 for a family of three. They struggle to make ends meet every month.
Half the jobs in the nation pay less than $34,000 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. A quarter pay below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually. Families that can send another adult to work have done better, but single mothers (and fathers) don't have that option. Poverty among families with children headed by single mothers exceeds 40 percent.
Wages for those who work on jobs in the bottom half have been stuck since 1973, increasing just 7 percent.
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SOURCE: The New York Times