Opinion: Thinking Big on Poverty
Half in ten is an initiative to cut poverty in the US led by the Center for American Progress, The Leadership Conference and the Coalition on Human Needs (Photo: halfinten.org)
By HILDA SOLIS and WADE HENDERSON
It has been 47 years since our country declared war on poverty. The year 1964 was another time of war and economic anxiety in America when the gulf between the “haves” and “have nots” seemed a bridge too far to cross. But President Lyndon Johnson understood the urgency of the situation and proposed a program equal to the moment.
“What you are being asked to consider is not a simple or an easy program, but poverty is not a simple or an easy enemy,” President Johnson said. “It cannot be driven from the land by a single attack on a single front. … If this were so, we would have conquered poverty long ago. But today, for the first time in our history, we have the power to strike away the barriers to full participation in our society. Having the power, we have the duty.”
In 2011, a time when our politics can seem so small, we must again think big about how to fight poverty in America.
President Obama has set the goal of eliminating homelessness in this country by 2020, and we are making strides. The Recovery Act kept one million Americans from falling into homelessness through HUD’s rapid re-housing program. It’s the kind of positive news the media doesn’t cover, but it was an important milestone.
But there’s much more to be done. We need to set big goals to address the unacceptable fact that 46 million Americans are living in poverty today. One in five children in America, 27 percent of African Americans and 26 percent of Latinos are below the poverty line. Now is not the time for policymakers to think small.
Half in Ten—a national campaign to cut poverty in half in 10 years—has endorsed a set of strategies for cutting our poverty rate in half over a decade. Many factors have deepened the U.S. poverty crisis: the mortgage crisis; a shortage of quality jobs; and the rising costs of health care, food, and fuel.
We need a recipe for growth that values hard work and creates opportunities for those who are willing to do it. Consider: The poverty rate for full-time, year-round workers is just 2.6 percent. Our most effective strategy for fighting poverty is generating more good jobs that offer family-supporting wages, training opportunities, robust employment benefits, and workplace flexibility.
Who has jobs like this in America today? People with specialized skills and unionized workers. Upholding laws that protect workers’ rights to join a union and investing in our educational and workforce development systems will help us create pathways out of poverty for millions of Americans.
Between 1979 and 2007, federal spending on education, training, and employment services fell by half, from 8.8 percent of GDP to 4.3 percent. Yet over the next decade, it’s projected that nearly half of all U.S. job openings will be for “middle-skill” jobs. These are positions that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. These are jobs that pay family-sustaining wages in fields like advanced manufacturing, renewable energy, health care, and information technology.
Increasing graduation rates and investing in job training for middle-skill workers must be a part of a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy. President Obama has set the goal for America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. It’s critical that we meet it. Never in our nation’s history has it been more important for students to continue their education after high school.
Right now, there are high-growth industries in this country that can’t find skilled labor to fill open positions. There are 3 million job vacancies right now employers are looking to fill. We need to train up our workers immediately to fill them.
We also must do more to help single parents doing the Herculean job of acting as sole breadwinner while raising a family. About 13 million households are headed by a single parent, and two out of five of these families live in poverty. We should make strengthening these households a national priority by boosting the income of single parents, closing the pay gap between men and women, and implementing flexible work schedule and child care policies that enable full-time employment.
No matter the challenge of the moment, we remain a country that can do big things. History is filled with examples of the good we can do when we unite behind strategies to tackle poverty in America. As LBJ said, because it is right, because it is wise and because it is possible, we have the duty.
*Solis is the United States Secretary of Labor. Henderson is President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—a partner in the Half in Ten Campaign.