For Americans living in poverty, this year’s State of the Union address was a watershed moment in recent history. President Barack Obama’s declaration that in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one working full-time should live in poverty was a message many Americans who aspire to enter into the middle class have been hoping to hear.
The president’s call for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour while tying future wages to the cost of living, along with making investments in education and manufacturing to make America a jobs magnet should start a serious discussion on poverty.
President Obama has been criticized by some for putting off this discussion for too long. Now that the he has laid down a marker, it’s in the hands of both Congress and the American people to make sure there is action on legislative proposals to improve the lives of people living in poverty.
Both parties have rightly said the backbone of our economic recovery is a strong middle class. But lost in the budget debates in Washington has been a clear sense that protecting the middle class can’t just be about those already in the middle class.
A good starting point would be to focus on the more than 16 million children currently living in poverty, who remain disproportionately African American. More than 1 in 3 Black children were poor in 2011, compared to 1 in 8 White or non-Hispanic children.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports record high levels of children have been living in poverty in recent years, with data showing the last 10 years have been particularly devastating. Child poverty rates increased by 35 percent since 2000, adding 4.5 million children to the poverty rolls, according to the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF).
Children continue to be the poorest age group in America with nearly 22 percent living in poverty compared to 13 percent of people ages 18-64 and less than 10 percent for those over the age of 65, the CDF reports.
Their data shows overwhelmingly children have suffered more than any other age group during the Great Recession of recent years.
Sadly, recent debates in Washington seem to overlook this data. Congress is careening toward yet another self-made budget crisis next month and the impacts of inaction would be severe on children living in poverty.
If a budget solution isn’t reached by March 1, Head Start and Early Head Start services would be eliminated for 70,000 children; 600,000 women and children would be dropped from the Department of Agriculture’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
Investments in innovation to spur job creation and make sure Americans get the tools they need to access those jobs would be put in danger, making it that much harder to enter into the middle class.
Congress has shown it can come together in divided times to do what’s in the best interest of children and families aspiring to get out of poverty.
A bipartisan national commission, during the Reagan era, successfully devised policies and programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which have collectively made a tremendous impact in lifting families and children out of poverty. Each of these measures has enjoyed support from Democratic presidents alike because poverty shouldn’t be a Democratic or Republican issue.
The criticism that President Obama has been slow to lead on this issue should now be directed toward Congressional leadership, particularly in the House of Representatives where, shortly after President Obama’s call for increasing the minimum wage, several Republicans publicly stated their opposition. To overcome this opposition, people in support of doing more to fight poverty must make their case to the Amrican people who have the power to pressure lawmakers to do the right thing.
President Obama understands this method of bringing about change, which is why immediately after delivering his State of the Union address he began traveling the country raising awareness of the need for pressure to be exerted on those standing in the way of progress.
Another idea is for citizens to contact their members of Congress and ask that they support a new National Commission on Children, which 16 advocacy groups have asked be created to develop additional proposals for reducing poverty.
Working in conjunction with a willing president we can all do our part to make sure a generation of children in poverty aren’t forgotten.
Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) represents California’s 37th Congressional District and sits on both the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees and serves as whip of the Congressional Black Caucus for the 113th Congress.
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