02 November 2012

The Important Topic Missing from the Presidential Race: Poverty

One of the more important but rarely discussed issues in next week's presidential election is how to address issues of poverty. Debates and rhetorical barbs between candidates have centered on issues related to poverty, such as education, jobs and benefits, but tend to steer away from discussing poverty itself.

That may be because the idea is to remain a bit more universal. The general issues that affect poor Americans also have an impact on every other American. Everybody wants better education in terms of quality and cost. That makes it easier to debate the issues in a more abstract sense without ever really having to address the people who are struggling with poverty.

The Chicago public radio station WBEZ recently produced a two-part series that profiles a woman named Sarah (her name was changed to protect her identity) who is struggling to make ends meet in the small town of Warsaw, Indiana. She is a single mother of two and a welfare recipient.

Sarah works for minimum wage at a local childcare center part-time, but that is not nearly enough for her to make ends meet. She still has debt from school that she cannot pay off, meaning that further education is not possible.

Full time work is hard because it requires Sarah to use childcare services and it moves her off the TANF benefits she used to meet the needs of her family.
For example, last spring Sarah got a job at a local deli. She was excited to work full time. But once she had the income, the government started reducing her benefits. First they decreased her food stamps. Then they took away TANF. Finally, she lost child care benefits. At that point, keeping the job seemed impractical. 
“Well if you make $7.25 an hour and you work 40 hours a week. You only bring home, what? $250," Sarah said. "If your daycare expense is $200, you only get $50. What about gas? So it was costing me more to have a job than I was making. I was having to pay them to let me have a job.”
The minimum-wage work at the deli was not enough to cover Sarah's basic needs. With the loss of welfare support, Sarah had to move back into part-time work if she could not secure a better paying job. Such a situation has lasting consequences on Sarah's two children.

The second part of the story reports on Pew research that finds that children born to single moms are four times more likely to be in poverty as opposed to children born in two-parent households. The stress of poverty is felt by the children. Allie, Sarah's daughter, is having behavorial problems in school and was found hiding a knife under her bed. “It turns out that it’s actually physical process. Neuroscientist have actually found that under prolonged periods of stress that brain development is affected,” said University of Wisconsin School of Social Work professor Katherine Magnuson to the program.

What makes Sarah's story interesting is that fact that she is a person who grew up middle class, she even owned a home for a period of time. Poverty was an outcome that Sarah fell into, but she is struggling to climb back out of the poverty trap.

The program concludes with Sarah summing up her dreams. “My American Dream was to find somebody who didn't need me but wanted me. Someone who helped raise my children and who would eventually buy a house. I want to have something so when I pass away, I can pass it along to my kids. My goal in life is to someday have something that is worth leaving behind that my children are proud of, she says."

One of the emerging questions from the program, which is at the heart of the elections in the US, is how to ensure that people can not only get out of poverty, but stay in the middle class. It is popular in some circles to dismiss poverty in the US as a matter of laziness or bad choices. Some might blame Sarah for having her two children, but that misses the point. The children do add an additional cost to Sarah, but she is not waiting around for a government handout.

People want to work, that is why jobs continues to be the oft-used phrase during this campaign season. Both tickets offer ideas about how to get more people back to work, but say little about creating the conditions for people to get out of poverty. Paul Ryan made comments about poverty in Cleveland a few weeks ago where he questioned the efficacy of poverty alleviating programs without offering a clear idea as to how the Romney-Ryan policies would be an improvement.

Hurricane Sandy exposed the level of inequality and the burden of poverty in New York city. Though time is running out before people cast their ballots (some have in fact already done so) and it is unlikely that policy debates about poverty will swing votes, it is paramount that discussions about poverty take place in the public realm. Reporting like the work by WBEZ is helpful to illustrate the complexity and challenges of poverty, but more must be done to raise the level of discourse.