Restoring Shared Prosperity: A Report to Spark a Movement

March 1, 2012

“I believe we can do this.” - U.S. Sec. of Labor Hilda Solis

“This is a moral duty.” - journalist Barbara Ehrenreich

“Food is a fundamental right and we need to help people access that.”
                                                             - food advocate Tara Marks

“We have the resources. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
- Restoring Shared Prosperity's call to action

Launching a Report and a Movement

This morning’s launch event for Half in Ten’s new report, Restoring Shared Prosperity, was both stunning and galvanizing. Stunning because it crystalized just where we stand as a country, using rigorous data and real numbers that are in some cases startling, and galvanizing because I left with a specific sense of what we can do.

What's more, the Half in Ten campaign--a coalition of organizations committed to cutting American poverty in half in a decade--is committed to tracking progress to hold us accountable year by year.

The product of nine months of research into the current state of poverty in America—its causes and potential solutions—the report paints a grim picture of life after the Great Recession.

Consider this: nearly a quarter (22 percent) of American kids are living in poverty today. In America. Today.  This isn't Dickensian England, this is here and now. We all know things are difficult, especially for children and families, but it's hard to remain unmoved in the face of just how serious they are.

Yet the event made it clear that the aim of the report isn't to sound the death knell of the American Dream. It’s about taking a  hard look at where we stand, what our priorities are as a country, and what we need to do to get back on solid financial ground.

And then doing it.

U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis applauded the report and the researchers behind it for thinking big. She began by saying “I believe we can do this."

Later, an audience member challenged this point. Why, when Congress is unable to accomplish anything, does she think we can make the kind of policies and changes that need to happen? 

Ms. Solis explained that if Congress chose to work together to implement good public policy, poverty in America could be cut in half in ten years.

Moments later, Coalition on Human Needs Executive Director Deborah Weinstein said, “This is a challenge to Congress and the White House that deficit reduction without attention to poverty reduction is doomed to failure.”

After all, the very federal programs on the chopping block are right now the only thing standing between millions of Americans and deeper poverty. If we address the deficit without tackling issues of unemployment, high housing costs and rising medical care, the country cannot recover economically, Weinstein said.

Debating the Role of the Private Sector

Now more than ever, working families are poor families.

A live panel discussion moderated by Barbara Ehrenreich, journalist and author of Nickle and Dimed, took a slightly different turn as two of the panelists debated the merits of private sector involvement in poverty reduction efforts.

Chanelle Hardy, Senior Vice President for Policy at the National Urban League, said, “We need government solutions, but we also need private sector solutions…. If we want to see a reduction in unemployment, then some people are going to need to step forward and do some things voluntarily.”

But "we can’t wait for that,” Anna Burger, Board member for the Center for American Progress Action Fund and a Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard, said.

Remember, Burger urged, that the Great Depression was lifted by government intervention, not the private sector.

Together, public-private partnerships could be the most effective approach of all.

What great timing for this report, said Barbara Ehrenreich, given the Occupy Wall Street movement, the rising cost of higher education without good jobs to make it worthwhile, and corporate struggles like Walmart’s recent announcement that it will cut worker health benefits.

“Poverty has been isolated as a problem of someone else…. We can’t do that anymore at this moment,” Ehrenreich says.

A Look at the Numbers

The numbers are striking. In 2006, 12.3 percent or 36.4 million Americans lived in poverty. By 2010 that number had increased to 46.2 million (15.2percent).

Since the Great Recession began in 2008 more than 103 million Americans are struggling to make ends meet on $44,700 per year for a family of four, an annual income that is twice the official poverty level of $22,314. Now more than ever, working families are poor families.

To give some context, new data from the Congressional Budget Office today shows that incomes for the richest Americans grew far more in the past 30 years than for any other group. And the gap between rich and poor widened, with the share of income accruing to the top 20 percent rising while it declined for other households. The top 20 percent of families netted more after taxes than the remaining 80 percent of the population combined.

Even more sobering is the fact that these numbers don’t tell the full story, because the national poverty line has been dropping steadily since it was implemented more than 50 years ago.  The official poverty level is based on an outdated formula developed in the 1960s when food made up nearly 1/3 of most American’s monthly budgets. With the rising costs of housing, healthcare and childcare, food now makes up roughly 1/7 of the average family budget.

The report notes: “When the official poverty line first instituted, it was equal to about 50 percent of the typical family of four’s income. Today, however, the federal poverty line is drawn at approximately 28 percent of median income.”

Some other striking facts from Half in Ten’s report show that:

  • The wealth divide between white Americans and black Americans has deepened.  In 2004 the median net worth of white households was roughly 10 times greater than that of black Americans: $134,280 versus $13,450.  In 2009, after the economic downturn, the median net worth of white households dropped 24% to $97,860 and was still a whopping 48 times greater than the average net worth of black households in America at $2,170. An 83% loss in five years.
     
  • Children are disproportionally affected by poverty. In just one year, between 2009 and 2010, poverty among children under age 18 rose from 20.7% to 22%, or 16.4 million children.  And more than one in four (26%) children under age 5 lived in poverty last year.
     
  • Graduating high school can help break the cycle of poverty. Without a high school diploma, 40.3% of young people between the 25 and 34 fell into poverty. In America, only 74.7% of high school students graduate each year, meaning that nearly one quarter of the nation’s young people are at risk of falling into (or remaining trapped within) the cycle of poverty. Additionally, for the second year in a row, nearly 15% of American youth (16-24) are “disconnected”, meaning they’re not working or enrolled in school.

The report authors note: “Young adults in general are also much more likely to live below the poverty line than other adults. While poverty is a transitory phenomenon for many young people as they obtain an education or initial work experience, a significant share of young people are neither working or in school, and at heightened risk of economic insecurity throughout their lives.”

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

As daunting as these numbers are, Restoring Shared Prosperity makes the case that we can turn things around. The report outlines three priority areas that require investment in order to cut national poverty rates in half in ten years:

  • create more good jobs,
  • strengthen families and communities, and
  • promote family economic security.

Each priority area comes with its own detailed analysis and set of policy recommendations to strengthen America’s economy and restore the middle class to prosperity.

A strong call to action at the end of the report emphasizes the need to move from inaction to advocacy, a sentiment echoed by the speakers at the launch event this morning.

Tara Marks, co-director of Just Harvest, an anti-hunger advocacy organization in Pittsburgh, PA,  said it is a matter of making sure legislators pay attention to their constituents.

“Accountability, accountability, accountability. We need to be knocking on their doors, make them hear us. It’s showing up at the policymakers' offices and saying this is going to happen,” she said.

The closing remarks from Wade Henderson, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, encouraged attendees to go one step further by mobilizing their networks, colleagues and communities to contact legislators and vote.

“We can’t do anything to advance the goals of this report unless we become more organized, more focused and more sophisticated,” Henderson said.

Check out this video, made in February 2012, that explains what Half in Ten and the report are all about:


TARA JAMESTara James is SparkAction's Sr. Outreach & Engagement Associate.

Half in Ten is a campaign to cut poverty in half in a decade; it's a collaborative partnership of The Coalition on Human Needs, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

 

Check out SparkAction's Family Economic Security page for more news, information and resources about lifting children and families out of poverty.

Tara T James