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How Should We Address Poverty?

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Do Now

How should the U.S. treat people who are living in poverty? What would an anti-poverty agenda look like? Devise one piece of legislation that could make a difference.


Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said, “The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.” For weakest members, read poorest citizens.

46 million Americans — 15 percent of the population — are now counted as living in poverty. According to the US Census Bureau this poverty rate has remained roughly at this same level since 2011.

Half the jobs in the nation pay less than $34,000 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. A quarter of those jobs pay below the poverty line for a family of four, which adds up to less than $23,000 annually. Families with another working adult do better, but single parents don’t have that option. Poverty among families with children headed by single mothers exceeds 40 percent.


KQED’s Newsfix gives a clear sense of what this means in California. “Children growing up in areas of concentrated poverty are more likely to experience stress, drop out of school, and grow up to be low-income adults…some parts of the state have many more high poverty kids than others. In Oakland, 22 percent of kids live in neighborhoods where a large proportion of families live below the federal poverty line, says Ted Lempert, executive director of Oakland-based Children Now. In the city of Fresno, that number grows to more than 40 percent.” (from Annie E. Casey Foundation report)

According to Robert Reich, the economist, (talking about his new film, Inequality for All, on PBS Newshour), “we know that 42 percent of poor kids born into poverty remain in poverty for their entire lifetimes, a higher percentage than even in Britain, where 30 percent of people born in poverty stay in poverty. And Britain’s is traditionally a rigid class society. We have less upward mobility than Britain; we have less upward mobility than any other advanced country.”

For most of the 1960s and 70s the minimum wage paid enough for a family of three to rise above the poverty line, about $18,000 today. This is not the case today. The minimum wage now stands at $7.25 per hour, resulting in below poverty earnings of approximately $15,000 for full-time employees. For tipped workers the minimum wage is even lower, and has been since 1991, at $2.13 per hour. So food industry workers (servers) in the United States are three times more likely than the general workforce to be paid sub-poverty wages and twice as likely to need food stamps. (see KQED Do Now’s Making Fast-Food for Little Pay)

And then there is sick pay. More than 40 percent of workers in the private sector —including 81 percent of low-wage workers—do not receive sick pay or paid leave to care for a sick child or family member. Taking time off to deal with a personal or family illness would mean losing their job. The United States is one of the only high-income countries not to set a minimal standard for paid sick days, or to provide paid leave to care for a family member. For families in or near poverty, losing pay makes the struggle to provide the basics even harder.

How should the US treat its needy? What would an anti-poverty agenda look like? Devise one piece of legislation that could make a difference.


PBS NewsHour video Why Robert Reich Cares so Passionately about Econ. Inequality
Economics correspondent Paul Solman talks to Robert Reich about “Inequality for All,” a documentary about the former labor secretary’s personal crusade to explain to Americans why everyone should care about the nation’s growing economic disparity and divisiveness.

To respond to the Do Now, you can comment below or tweet your response. Be sure to begin your tweet with @KQEDedspace and end it with #DoNowPoverty

For more info on how to use Twitter, click here.

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More Resources

KQED The Lowdown post Infographic: What Does it Mean to Be Poor in America?
In October, the U.S. Census Bureau released a series of 2012 income data for American households. The figures shows that despite the nation’s supposed economic recovery, average American household incomes didn’t really budge from where they were the year before. Meanwhile, the poverty rate remained at roughly the same level as it was in 2011 as well.

NPR Radio segment The Trouble with the Poverty Line
According to the government, there are 46.5 million Americans who live below the poverty line. In other words, that’s how many people are officially poor. But pretty much everyone who studies poverty agrees: The way we arrive at this figure is completely wrong.

Washington Post article Study: Poor children are now the majority in American public schools in South, West
A majority of students in public schools throughout the American South and West are low-income for the first time in at least four decades, according to a new study that details a demographic shift with broad implications for the country. Contains a graphic illustrating how low-income students made up at least half the public school student population in 17 states in 2011, a marked increase from 2000, when four states topped 50 percent.

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