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"Center for American Progress Response,"

by Angela Glover Blackwell, Peter Edelman, Cassandra Butts & Mark Greenberg July/August 2007 issue of Poverty & Race

We thank PRRAC for encouraging discussion of and commentary on our report. We wrote the report to show that the nation has the capacity to dramatically reduce poverty and to help make the case for a national goal of cutting poverty in half in the next ten years. The report is one of a number of recent initiatives and efforts across the country—from the faith-based community, civil rights groups, mayors and others—seeking to elevate local, state and national attention to poverty. We are encouraged both by the growing momentum and by the number of people and groups who have found our report helpful. We recognized that our recommendations, while extensive, were not a comprehensive cataloging of a complete agenda for progressive social change in America. Addressing poverty is one part of a broader agenda, but we wrote the report to emphasize that it should be an essential part of that agenda.

We agree with a number of observations made by commenters. For example, we agree with Jill Cunningham about the importance of active involvement and participation of the poor, and with Herbert Gans about the importance of promoting higher voting turnout among low-income people, elevating attention to poverty in the 2008 elections, and building on successful and popular programs. We share David Shipler’s view that a successful strategy needs to meld calls for social and personal responsibility. We agree with Mtangulizi Sanyika that poverty is not simply a problem of insufficient income but is also a structural problem of “opportunity deprivation.” That is why we propose a strategy combining the four themes of decent work, promoting opportunity, ensuring security and helping people build wealth. And we agree with Bill Spriggs, both about the critical role of adequate wages, and about the importance of not treating the failures of the labor market as failures of personal responsibility.

Our report includes twelve recommendations which we believe, taken together, would cut poverty in half. Several commenters point to areas that we didn’t discuss or that they wished we had discussed in greater detail. In particular, Mike Wenger wishes we had spent more time discussing the role of and calling for efforts to bring an end to racism. We are very mindful of the central role that racism has played in American social policy, and a number of Task Force members have spent much of their lives addressing it. We think that an important contribution of this report is that, in addition to highlighting the role of racism, we call for measuring the extent to which policies reduce the racial poverty gap. Moreover, our proposals, if implemented, would result in the lowest African-American and Hispanic poverty rates in US history and a dramatic reduction in the racial poverty gap. At the same time, a comprehensive agenda should include but must go beyond the report’s recommendations—as we emphasize in the report.

Almost all of the commenters speak favorably of the need for a renewed national effort to address poverty. Several, however, raise questions about how to make the most effective case or about the political viability of focusing on poverty. Herbert Gans emphasizes the limits of “guilt-tripping” and “consensual rhetoric.” Chris Howard suggests the importance of tying efforts to those that benefit the middle class, and working “behind the scenes” with a “be quiet and be clever strategy.” Margy Waller asserts that it is folly to wrap policy proposals in a goal of reducing poverty.

We agree that guilt-tripping is not an effective strategy, but we think a broad consensus can be built, on moral and economic grounds, that sustained poverty is contrary to our national interest. The moral case is not that we should feel guilty about poverty but rather that it is wrong to tolerate it. The economic case cannot be limited to a call to narrow self-interest, because most Americans aren’t poor and don’t risk persistent poverty. But Americans respond to more than narrow self-interest—one compelling example is the success of the minimum wage movement; another is the increasing recognition of the importance of early education to the nation’s future growth. Our nation needs a healthy, well-educated, capable workforce in order to be globally competitive in the 21st Century. The research of Harry Holzer of Georgetown University and his colleagues found that poverty imposes a half trillion dollar cost on the economy each year.

For many issues, an effective approach can draw upon the shared interests of low- and moderate-income Americans. We urge a framework of progressive universalism—that when a problem or need is shared by many, the solution should provide help to all, with the most help to those who need it most. However, an effective long-run strategy cannot just talk publicly about the middle class while seeking to quietly slip provisions to help the poor into bills. If legislators don’t see or hear a constituency urging them to do more than address middle-class needs, why would they do so? Further, some issues that are fundamental to addressing poverty—helping disconnected youth re-engage, prisoner re-entry, housing and development strategies to address concentrated poverty —are not likely to be prominent in a middle-class agenda. The agendas to address middle-class insecurity and to reduce poverty are overlapping and complementary, but limiting our public discussion to the middle class won’t get us far enough.

Margy Waller essentially dismisses the relevance to the US of the UK’s commitment to end child poverty because the UK uses a broader set of measures of poverty. But advancing a commitment to a national goal could, and likely would, generate renewed discussions about how to better measure poverty. When Tony Blair in 1999 announced the goal of ending child poverty, there was no established official poverty measure in the UK for purposes of reaching the goal. The measures were announced in 2003, after a consultation process, and four years after the national goal was declared. Since 1998-99, absolute child poverty has fallen in the UK by more than half, relative poverty by 18%, and the Tory Party leadership now speaks favorably of the importance of reducing child poverty. UK policymakers urge the need for both poverty reduction and social inclusion, but it is highly unlikely that there would be the same pressure for efforts to reduce child poverty in the absence of a quantifiable, measurable goal.

Waller also contends that talking about poverty is doomed to fail because many people believe the poor are at fault for their conditions, and progressives have “lost” the personal responsibility issue. Polling data show that the public is pretty evenly divided on whether the biggest explanation for poverty is individual behavior or social conditions, but the data also show that most people believe it’s a combination of the two. This isn’t reason to avoid talking about poverty. Of course it’s true that poverty is caused by both individual and social causes. We won’t generate public support for policies that appear to reward bad behavior—whether we talk about “poverty” or another term or concept. Our report makes clear that the persistence of poverty cannot be reduced to individual failings, but it also shows how the nation can dramatically reduce poverty in ways that are entirely consistent with expecting and rewarding individual initiative and responsibility.

We are very encouraged by the increasing attention to poverty in Congress, among the public, and among Presidential candidates. Such attention can and should grow in the coming months—a John Zogby poll recently found that most voters would be more likely (58% more likely, 8% less likely) to vote for a candidate committed to a goal of cutting poverty in half in ten years. This is a key moment in which to advance a national campaign to address poverty in America, and we look forward to working with a broad range of people and groups in such an effort.

Angela Glover Blackwell is the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity, and co-author of Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future (W.W. Norton, 2010). agb@policylink.org
 
Peter Edelman co-chaired the CAP Task Force; edelman@law.georgetown.edu
 
Cassandra Butts is CAP's Senior Vice President for Domestic Policy; cbutts@americanprogress.org
 
Mark Greenberg was CAP's Task Force Executive Director. mgreenberg@americanprogress.org
 
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