Economists paint a gloomy picture of poverty in America. But lawmakers can make a difference.
The United States could dramatically reduce poverty – if it really wanted to. Instead, the number of American households in severe poverty (those with incomes less than half that of the official poverty level) has been growing, not shrinking.
"Poverty persists, not because we lack effective antipoverty policy options, but because we lack the political will to expand our policies," says Sheldon Danziger of the National Poverty Center, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty with the goal of lifting the "forgotten fifth" of the nation above the official poverty line. His economists predicted success by 1980 as the benefits of economic growth were shared over the years.
It didn't happen. The nature of the economy changed with globalization, high immigration, less unionization, and slower economic growth per capita. Instead, the income gap between the poor and the rich, especially the extremely rich, has greatly widened. This trend was recently acknowledged by President Bush, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson Jr., and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
"There's rising public concern about growing inequality," notes Peter Edelman, chair of a poverty task force at the Center for American Progress, a "progressive" think tank in Washington. His group will report later this month with recommendations for reducing poverty. "We know a lot more today [about] what to do," he says.
Nor would a serious antipoverty effort be inordinately expensive, he says. Its costs could be met by ending the "unnecessary and undeserved tax cuts" given the wealthiest Americans this decade, he claims. Winding down the Iraq war would also free funds to help the poor.