Poverty in the U.S. is approaching its highest level since the 1960s. Economists predict that the percentage of Americans who lived below the poverty line in 2011 might be as high as 15.7%, up from 15.1% in 2010. About one in six Americans lives below the poverty line. For a family of four, that means earning less than $22,314 per year.
More than ever, poverty is a problem that affects all Americans, and it has reverberating effects on our entire economy. Americans urgently need to find a solution to poverty -- to help struggling families and to preserve the future of our nation.
Fortunately, there are basic policy measures which would go a long way toward reducing the poverty rate and improving the quality of life for low-income Americans. Here are seven steps we can take to pull America out of poverty:
1. End Tax Cuts for the Wealthy
This reform won't attack poverty directly, but it is a necessary step toward refocusing our nation's priorities. America has always strived to find a balance between reducing inequality and promoting growth, but our current policies favor the wealthy so much that our income inequality is growing and our economic growth is stunted. Bush's excessive tax cuts for large corporations and the wealthy have not created jobs, and eliminating them would go a long way toward fighting poverty.
Even a marginal increase in taxes for wealthy individuals would free up money to fight poverty while tackling the budget deficit at the same time. For example, if we returned the top two income tax rates to the pre-Bush levels of 36% and 39.6% (currently, the rates are 33% and 35%), we'd save an estimated 3.8 trillion dollars over the next 10 years. As this infographic shows, ending certain frivolous tax breaks would be an easy way to finance poverty-fighting programs.
2. Reform and Expand the TANF Program
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, is the Clinton-era product of welfare reform. Concerned with stories of "welfare queens" who became rich by mooching off of the government, Clinton promised to "end welfare as we know it" by implementing changes such as work requirements and time limits.
This reform had the right intentions, but it left many needy people without aid. As many as one in four low-income single mothers is jobless and without cash aid. Those who do receive aid must waste precious working hours navigating a complicated web of red tape and bureaucracy, and the requirements provide no option for recipients to enhance their career prospects through education. TANF must be reformed to make it easier for low-income people to pull themselves out of poverty while receiving temporary support, and expanded to include poor families who are currently falling through the cracks.
3. Increase Funding for Job Creation
In this time of recession and unemployment, lawmakers are trying to decrease government spending rather than increase it, putting us at risk for a double-dip recession. The government is also missing out on opportunities to fund job-creation programs that would employ low-income people. America should repeat its stimulus success and fund job-creation programs that will give low-income people, especially youth, much-needed work opportunities.
4. Adopt the Harkin Miller Proposal
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) propose increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.80 per hour, and thereafter index it to inflation. It's a modest increase that would go a long way to helping minimum wage workers support their families. A current minimum wage worker working full-time would earn as little as $15,080 annually -- potentially putting them below the poverty line.
As Richard Eskow argues in the Huffington Post, increasing the minimum wage would not destroy jobs because the majority of minimum-wage jobs are in large corporations, which can afford to pay their workers a more. The Harkin Miller Proposal would provide a more livable income for minimum wage employees and pump extra spending money into to the economy to boot.
5. Create and Preserve Affordable Housing
Low-income Americans typically spend at least a third (and often more than half) of their income on housing, so when housing costs are high, low-income families suffer. According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, a family must make $38,360 to afford a two-bedroom apartment. Even though housing has such a big impact on both poverty and the U.S. economy, America is not paying enough attention to housing policy. We need to put more effort into finding solutions to the housing crisis, so that low-income families won't be overburdened with housing costs or forced to live in conditions that impede their chances for success.
6. Support Community Service
Many antipoverty measures are implemented on a national level, but there's a lot that can be done to fight poverty on the local and community level too. That's what New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg had in mind when he created NYC Service, the nation's first-ever office designed to encourage residents to participate in community service activities. Bloomberg has worked with other mayors throughout the U.S. in a Cities of Service initiative to encourage people to help their community, whether by planting a tree, mentoring a student, or delivering food to the elderly. Community service initiatives can be harnessed to tackle poverty by engaging ordinary citizens in using their skills to help people in need.
7. Destigmatize Poverty
Last but not least, we need to take a long hard look at ourselves and re-examine our stereotypes about poverty. America holds dear the promise of self-improvement and pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps through work. The unfortunate side-effect of this ideal is that we tend to disparage the poor, criticizing them for "not working hard enough." At a time when our nation's inequality is growing and a sixth of our country lives in poverty, we must realize that poverty is everyone's responsibility and we have to deal with it now.