Just looking at the number is staggering. That's the number of Americans who live at or below the poverty line, a benchmark that is artificially low and out-dated. Millions more struggle to make ends meet each month.
We don't like to admit it, and we seldom speak in these terms, but poverty is extremely costly, and not because we are over-funding programs designed to lift people out of it's grip. Lost productivity, declining public health, increases in criminal activity and broken neighborhoods combine to run up our national poverty tab.
Childhood poverty alone (brace yourself!) costs us $500,000,000,000--that's $500 billion annually or about 4% of our entire GDP.
Instead of making progress against poverty as a nation, the fact is that over the past six years five million Americans have fallen into poverty.
Today, as you read my post, 1 of 8 Americans lives in poverty!
The U. S. ranks 24th out of 25 developed nations when counting the number of persons who live on 50% of national median income. What does this say about us as a people?
One thing is clear: economic inequality is growing among us.
In 2005, the wealthiest 1% of our population received 19% of the nation's total income, the highest percentage since 1929. The poorest 20% of our population received only 3.4% of the nation's income.
We must do better than this.
Here's the really sobering fact: we could if we decided to.
Last year the Center for American Progress convened a "Task Force on Poverty." The group ended its analysis by calling for a national goal of cutting poverty in half over the next 10 years. Setting forth a bold 12-step plan, the task force created an economic model for actually reducing poverty by 50% between now and 2016-2017.
Here are the recommended 12 steps that would produce such a stimulating outcome for our national economy:
1. Index the minimum wage to half the average national hourly wage.
2. Expand Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Credit benefits.
3. Encourage the health of unions by enacting the Employee Free Choice Act that would allow employees to organize more easily.
4. Guarantee child care assistance to low-income families and promote early education for all children.
5. Add 2 million new housing vouchers for use by families desiring to live in neighborhoods where poverty is not concentrated in an unhealthy and defeating manner.
6. Connect disadvantaged youth to school and work.
7. Simplify and expand Pell Grants and make higher education accessible to everyone.
8. Help former prisoners find stable employment and re-enter
9. Provide Unemployment Insurance benefits to low-wage workers who are excluded by the formulas and process of the current system.
10. Improve, modernize, increase efficiencies and coordinate public benefits so that people in need can access what is needed for people who find themselves between jobs and for the disabled among us.
11. Reduce the high cost of simply being poor, and increase access to legitimate, equitable financial services.
12. Incentivize saving for education, homeownership and retirement.
The task force estimates the annual cost for these recommendations would be approximately $90 billion a year. For sure, a significant investment in our nation's future and present health and well being. But, only 0.8% of the nation's GDP--less than a 1/4 of what the present existence of poverty currently costs us!
In 2008, tax cuts for families with incomes over $200,000 will cost the nation $100 billion.
The Urban Institute estimates that by implementing just 4 of the recommendations (minimum wage, Earned Income Tax Credit, child credit and child care services) poverty could be driven down by 26%, over halfway to the goal!
Such progress would mean over 9,000,000 fewer people living in poverty and a national poverty rate of 9.1%--the lowest in our history. Child poverty would dip by 41% and the number of people living in extreme poverty, or about 1/2 of the federal poverty level, would drop by 2,000,000 Americans.
The poverty gap among the races would narrow significantly. White poverty would drop to 7%. African American poverty would fall from 21.4% to 15.6% and Hispanic poverty would fall from 21.4% to 12.9%.
Public will is what is needed.
Lots of people won't believe it is possible, but it is. Our history proves it.
In the 1960s, U. S. public policy managed to almost eliminate poverty among our elderly citizens, thanks to the creation of programs such as Medicare. Other ingenious initiatives combined to drive poverty down by almost 19%.
At that time another war intervened to distract our national attention and truncate efforts to further reduce the impact of poverty among our people.
No program will be perfect, but the choice between perfection or nothing, is not a legitimate way to frame the challenge.
We can do better work than we are today. And, I'd say, we must.
[Read the full report, "From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half," April 2007, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/domestic.]