Five Good Ideas to Combat Poverty in America

By David T. Applegate, Research and Policy Assistant, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity


With midterm elections only a few weeks away, politicians are busy on the campaign trail talking to millions of Americans about our nation’s challenges and their plans for how to address them effectively. As candidates frame the issues, debate ideas, and seek to draw voters to the polls, we believe there’s one pressing issue that deserves to be on the top of the agenda: poverty.

The most recent poverty data show that 14.5 percent of Americans, or 45.3 million people, live in poverty. Nearly 20 million Americans are considered extremely poor which, for a family of three, means living on less than about $9,000 per year. Digging deeper into these numbers, nearly one in five children lives in poverty and as many as 6.5 million children live in families that are extremely poor. Hispanics and African-Americans represent 30 percent of the total population, but 52.5 percent of the population living in poverty.

We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to support themselves and their families and that no one should live in poverty. As we enter the final weeks of the 2014 election season, we have five anti-poverty strategies that we’d like to see candidates talking about—and taking action on once they’re in office.

#1: Raise the Wage:
Low-income workers are virtually guaranteed to live in poverty because the national minimum wage—just $7.25 per hour—is so low. Today, there are numerous raise the wage campaigns across the country fighting to raise workers’ pay at the state and local levels, and at the federal level President Obama has made raising the minimum wage one of his central economic objectives. By supporting raising the wage, candidates have an opportunity to push forward a concrete anti-poverty measure that would stimulate the economy, increase the income of millions of Americans working to support themselves and their families, and help lift individuals and families out of poverty.

#2: Scale Up Programs that Help Get Americans Back to Work:
Earned income through employment is essential to helping individuals exit and remain out of poverty. While the economy continues to slowly recover from the Great Recession, millions of Americans remain unemployed or underemployed. With two unemployed job seekers per job opening, it’s no surprise that nearly 32 percent of unemployed job seekers (or 3 million Americans) have been without a job for 27 or more weeks. Getting Americans back to work requires investing in effective employment solutions that have demonstrated success—including subsidized employment and transitional jobs programs. Research shows that these strategies have a positive impact on low-income job seekers’ earnings and employment outcomes and can be brought to scale quickly. We urge candidates to recognize the need for these types of effective solutions—and call for greater investments in what works to help unemployed Americans get and keep jobs.

#3: Support Our Nation’s Young People:
This past summer, the youth unemployment rate was 14.3 percent compared to the overall unemployment rate of 6.2 percent. Youth of color are disproportionately impacted by unemployment, with approximately one in four African-American and one in six Hispanic youth looking for, but unable to find, jobs. Estimates are that 6.7 million youth ages 16 to 24 are disconnected from education and work, representing a loss of billions of dollars to our economy. We believe that helping youth gain a foothold in the labor market is essential to their own—and this country’s—future. Candidates can and should invest in the next generation by advocating for initiatives designed to connect low-income youth to paid work opportunities such as transitional jobs programs combined with education and skill building.

#4: Maintain & Strengthen the Social Safety Net:
Programs such as Medicare, SNAP, Social Security, and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) have prevented millions of Americans from slipping into poverty. Researchers from Columbia University found that if it were not for the safety net programs enacted in the 1960s, the poverty rate would be 31 percent, or more than double what it is today. However, the majority of these programs remain inadequately funded and are often the first to be cut or used as pawns in federal budget negotiations. Candidates need to support increased funding for these programs that are providing economic security for children, seniors, and families and recognize the important role the safety net has in alleviating poverty’s harshest impacts.

#5: Uphold a Federal Budget Reflective of American Values:
We believe that every person is entitled to a fair start in life, access to opportunity, and a life of dignity, safety, and well-being. The recent budget debates in the United States have been dominated by calls for austerity and draconian funding cuts that are contrary to principles of fairness and equal opportunity and harmful to the economic security and health of the American people. The FY16 federal budget will be up for debate this year, and it’s important to remember that we need a balanced approach to deficit reduction. Candidates should keep in mind that deciding how and where to spend federal public resources comes down to choices that reflect our values and beliefs—and call for a budget that invests in the job training, education, and housing programs that support the well-being of all Americans, including those living in poverty.

No single policy suggestion is sufficient to end poverty in the United States. However, these are five areas that offer a real opportunity to alleviate poverty and stimulate the economy by investing in the well-being of millions of Americans. As America goes to the polls in three weeks, it is time for our political leaders to renew our commitment to being a nation of opportunity by taking real action to provide economic security for all and end poverty in America.

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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