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Poverty Plight: Is Society Doing Enough To Lift The Poor Out Of Economic Despair?

By Deborah Reed, program director, and Hans Johnson, research fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Riverside Press-Enterprise on October 16, 2005

Hurricane Katrina forced the nation into a chillingly close encounter with poverty in America. By witnessing images of families left to face hunger, dehydration, disease and violence following a natural disaster, we were also forced to see the unmistakable and bleak divide between the haves and have nots -- a divide that too often runs along racial and ethnic lines. Katrina revealed more than severe deficiencies in disaster response -- it also highlighted government's longtime failure to address poverty.

Unfortunately, here in California, we don't have to look far to see the reality of those who are poor. In 2004, more than 14 percent of people in the Inland Empire lived in poverty -- nearly the same rate as in the New Orleans metropolitan area. And the racial divide is no less stark.

In the Inland Empire during the past few years, the poverty rate among whites has been as low as 10 percent, while it has been as high as 18 percent among African Americans and as high as 24 percent among Latinos. Children are especially hard hit: One of every five children in the Inland Empire lives in an impoverished family.

Itís been more than 40 years since the nation declared its war on poverty. What happened? Nationally, poverty did decline substantially during the 1960s -- dropping from more than 22 percent in 1959 to about 12 percent in 1969. Since then, the poverty rate has fluctuated with economic conditions but has not declined. In fact, the rate rose to nearly 13 percent in 2004.

Simply put, the rising economic tides of the last quarter century have not lifted all boats equally. Some of the state's regions are harder hit than others: Thirty years ago, average wages and incomes in the Inland Empire were about the same as in the rest of the country; today, they are substantially lower.

This is not to say there has been no progress. Indeed, antipoverty policy has worked in a variety of ways to improve conditions of poor families. Most notably, Social Security benefits have greatly reduced poverty rates among the retirement-aged population.

For younger families, welfare benefits provide income support, and their living conditions are further improved through health insurance, food stamps and housing programs. Still, the overall effect of these policies on poverty rates is thought to be fairly small -- perhaps decreasing the rate by a few percentage points. In the last decade, anti-poverty policy has followed a "personal responsibility" theme, encouraging work and self-sufficiency. For example, the major welfare reform of 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, redefined welfare as temporary assistance and created welfare benefits tied to training and employment. The Earned Income Tax Credit primarily targets working families with children, providing a credit that is meant to pull a full-time, minimum-wage worker out of poverty.

Along with this focus on personal responsibility and self-sufficiency, we should not lose sight of the role public policy plays in creating opportunities for economic success. For the poor who lack job skills, work force training is absolutely critical. Public infrastructure investments in roads, transit, parks and schools can attract development to poor communities.

And perhaps no anti-poverty investment is more compelling than the one made in public schools. With education increasingly linked to employment opportunities, schools should offer children living in poverty the chance to make better lives for themselves. Unfortunately, we continue to see a predominance of poor and minority students attending low-performing schools.

Public recognition of poverty and its ill effects is increasingly evident. Prior to Katrina, a Gallup Poll revealed that 75 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the federal government's efforts related to poverty.

Do Californians have the political will to make new investments for relieving poverty? If not, we must accept continued poverty as a public failure and not a private responsibility.


Poverty in California

Recent Trends in Income and Poverty

Poverty in California: Levels, Trends, and Demographic Dimensions