Sept. 10, 2011 – 1:14 p.m.
Political Economy: Look Around
By John Cranford, CQ Columnist
It is manifestly true — even if it is also a centuries-old cliché — that the poor will always be with us, and that those who are destitute are deserving of help from the rest of us.
Nonetheless, the impoverished weren’t much in evidence last Thursday night as President Obama exhorted lawmakers to quickly pass a jobs bill. Mostly, the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress seemed to be focused on helping a middle class hard hit by the Great Recession. The closest sign that there are people who have yet to reach middle-income status was a single mother who found subsidized employment under a special welfare program and who attended the speech as a guest of the first lady.
The rising troubles of those who are least fortunate will possibly be front and center this week when the Census Bureau releases its latest assessment of poverty in America. The picture the new study presents for last year will no doubt be quite ugly. The poverty rate has been rising more or less steadily for a decade, driven higher by not just one recession, but by two. (Interactive Graphic: Where Are America’s Poor?
The old saw that the best anti-poverty program is a job still applies. So, as Congress debates how to boost employment, evidence of increased poverty will be a reminder that it’s not just those who lost their jobs during the recession who need help, but also those who have never found work in the first place.
Obama’s focus on the battered middle class is understandable on some level. The speech was plainly directed toward voters — targeted by the president to call their representatives on Capitol Hill as agents for his proposal — and the poor are generally more attentive to the immediate concerns of finding food and shelter than they are to legislative lobbying.
Moreover, the president’s jobs proposal does make an effort to acknowledge the lack of employment opportunities for the most disadvantaged among us.
A $5 billion program would provide work and training for low-income Americans, particularly younger people. Currently, one in four teenagers who wants to work can’t find employment. Roughly 400,000 Hispanic teens were counted as unemployed in August — more than one out of three of those who wanted to work. About 300,000 black teens could not land a job, almost one out of two who wanted one. And those figures don’t take into account poor kids who have such low expectations that they aren’t even trying.
“Pass this bill, and hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged young people will have the hope and the dignity of a summer job next year. And their parents — their parents — low-income Americans who desperately want to work, will have more ladders out of poverty,” Obama told lawmakers.
A Long, Downhill Slide
The president may be correct that his plan will help. But poverty, and finding jobs for poor people, is a much bigger problem than the president’s speech might suggest.
Nationwide, the poverty rate was 14.3 percent in 2009, higher than it has been in 15 years. More than 43.5 million Americans were counted as impoverished two years ago. And it’s likely that the figure Census reports for 2010 will be higher still.
Moreover, the poverty problem is hardly uniform across the nation. Two-thirds of the states have poverty rates below the national average. And some have much higher concentrations of poor people. Consider Texas, for example, where the poverty rate was much higher than the nation as a whole at 17.3 percent in 2009.
Political Economy: Look Around
Republican presidential candidate
That said, reversing the rise in poverty nationwide will require a concerted effort to lift economic growth in a broad way. A decade ago, the national poverty rate had declined to 11.3 percent — the lowest in a quarter century. Roughly 31.5 million people were officially poor in 2000, less than three-fourths as many as today.
The cause of that decline wasn’t just government efforts to help bootstrap the impoverished, although such assistance was most surely critical. Actually, the low point for the poverty rate was reached just as the country concluded an unprecedented, decade-long period of expansion. Unemployment fell to a 30-year low of 3.8 percent in April 2000 from a previous peak of 7.8 percent in June 1992. And that also allowed President Bill Clinton and Congress to overhaul welfare in the latter part of the decade.
If Congress can find a way to promote job growth, then individuals who want to work would surely benefit. But the real virtue of increasing employment would be to provide a strong, structural underpinning for an economy that is struggling to find its feet. Only with a recovery that is fully engaged might the nation brake its long slide toward creating a bigger underclass. That would be the true promise of a serious effort at boosting jobs.