Waging the war on poverty

Let’s focus on solutions, not stereotypes

IN 2015, THERE are emerging signs of bipartisan energy to address poverty.

While contemplating a third presidential run, Mitt Romney vowed that a potential campaign would include a pledge to “end the scourge of poverty.”

And earlier this month, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush outlined his “Right to Rise” agenda.

“It’s very hard for people to go from the bottom rungs of the economy to the top. Or even to the middle,” Bush said. “This should alarm you.”

Helping the estimated 50 million Americans in poverty should be paramount to politicians at all levels. In Massachusetts alone, the percentage of residents living in poverty is at its highest since 1960; 1.6 million people are poor or near poor, according to a Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center study done on behalf of Massachusetts Association for Community Action (MASSCAP).

So we’re heartened to see leaders across the political spectrum join policy analysts, researchers, historians, and journalists to begin a healthy dialogue over how to help Americans escape those bottom rungs. It is encouraging to see some conservatives recognize that a great education and a stronger Earned Income Tax Credit are important parts of a solution.

But too many leaders are offering policy prescriptions that recycle stereotypes about why people are in poverty, rather than promoting effective solutions. Some of these prescriptions proposed in Washington DC – incentivizing two-parent households, turning over anti-poverty programs to the states, vilifying “entitlement” programs as being part of a culture of “dependency” – reinforce misconceptions about fighting poverty and could very well exacerbate inequality.

The MassBudget study demonstrated something important – safety net programs work to keep people out of poverty. More than 840,000 people in the Commonwealth are kept out of poverty through programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit, and fuel assistance. Wholesale restructuring through state control – with 50 different sets of regulations – could result in benefit cuts for those who need help the most.

Massachusetts is dedicated to ending inequality. In the last decade, we have ensured nearly universal access to health care, raised the minimum wage twice, and mandated earned sick time. And our 24 local agencies comprising the Massachusetts Association of Community Action reach over 650,000 low-income people annually, providing a wide array of federal and state programs that help families move out of poverty. But to continue moving forward, we’ll need to stay focused and build on what works. Here are the planks of a realistic anti-poverty agenda for the Commonwealth:

Refundable tax credits: Reforming and increasing the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, supported by leaders such as Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, and State Senator Jamie Eldridge puts more money in the pockets of families in poverty. Tax credits keep 74,000 Massachusetts children out of poverty each year.

Early Education: A great education is most often the catalyst to economic mobility. Quality early education is critical for children in low-income families if we want to close the school readiness gap with their more affluent counterparts. Investing in a highly qualified, fairly compensated workforce to educate our youngest children is essential to open doors to opportunity. And working parents rely on high-quality, full-day, full-year programs for their children so that they can fully participate in the workforce.

Affordable housing: Over 200,000 Massachusetts households are spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent. Creating more affordable housing units and rental vouchers will help thousands of families find secure, affordable homes.

Expanded programming: Beyond traditional anti-poverty programs, our local agencies offer specialized programs such as a financial stability center in Quincy that integrates free tax preparation with financial literacy and workforce training, and a program in Plymouth that offers training for a truck driver’s license. We support establishing a trust fund to invest in innovative new ideas for ending poverty.

Collaboration: US Rep. Jim McGovern, an anti-poverty crusader, is developing a poverty task force with the Massachusetts Association of Community Action designed to bring many perspectives together to study and address poverty and its long term effect on the Commonwealth. Working collaboratively at all levels, we will explore new partnerships and avenues for fighting poverty.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
As anti-poverty advocates, we welcome the national spotlight on this important cause and we encourage our leaders to embrace, improve, and build upon the proposals that we know through 50 years of experience can achieve results.

Paul Bailey is president of the Massachusetts Association for Community Action and executive director of the Springfield Partners for Community Action. Joe Diamond is executive director of the Massachusetts Association for Community Action.