A Forgotten Lesson of the War on Poverty

Poor people organizing other poor people to take control of their future—that is what the original War on Poverty was about.  Some of its early history points to a possible way to combat poverty now and in the future.

One of the most significant successes of the first years of the War on Poverty was the strong emphasis on organizing and empowering people in poor communities to take control of many aspects of their lives (education, job opportunities and training, crime control, health care, and legal issues, to name a few).

The original intent of the War on Poverty was not only to create safety net programs.  It was to identify, train, and nurture the leaders and residents in low-income communities to mobilize and take control of their own destinies.

What this history suggests is that combatting poverty now and in the future should once again be built around poor people organizing to address the challenges that they see their families and communities up against every day.

That kind of work was undertaken by local Community Action Agencies (CAAs) and it was so effective that it threatened the existing power structures.

One of the most dramatic images of successful organizing was in the late 1960s in Chicago, where I lived and worked for the Office of Economic Opportunity helping to administer funds for War on Poverty programs.  At the time, garbage was picked up once per week by municipal crews.  But if the weather was bad—not an unusual occurrence during winters in Chicago—garbage in the poorer neighborhoods was often not collected at all.  Local community activists organized a protest, funded in part by War on Poverty community action agency grants.  People brought their garbage bags downtown and left them on the sidewalk outside of City Hall.  There were pictures in the papers and images on TV every day showing the growing piles of garbage outside of City Hall.  It didn’t take long for the City to change its operation and make sure that everyone got their garbage picked up every week.

Other successful community organizing efforts throughout the country included:

  • Rent strikes to demand sanitary, heated, and safe living conditions
  • Migrant workers striking for improved living and work conditions
  • Programs to enroll seniors in the newly established Medicare program, combat isolation, and promote access to regular meals
  • Community-based mental health and substance abuse programs
  • Job-readiness training programs
  • Head Start programs which brought together families and the broader community to give children a better chance at success

Importantly, most of the people who led the organizing for these efforts were poor themselves and lived in the communities that they were trying to improve. They had very strong leadership qualities and were well-respected by local residents.   The local CAAs hired them and they worked within the communities to identify barriers to economic opportunity and to empower local residents to overcome those barriers.

Unfortunately, the success of community organizing and empowerment was seen as a threat to both urban/liberal and rural/suburban/conservative elected officials at every level of government.  Congressional members, fearing these new leaders as well as activism in poor communities, gutted funding for this crucial element of the War on Poverty starting in 1969.

What this history suggests is that combatting poverty now and in the future should once again be built around poor people organizing to address the challenges that they see their families and communities up against every day.

While government is unlikely to fund these kinds of efforts, non-partisan, private foundations should indeed support this type of grassroots organizing. If it works as well now as it did 50 years ago, it would force all of our elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, to listen to all of the people, not just those who have the money and organizational power to influence legislation.

And the country as a whole would benefit.




Increasing Wages is an Effective Poverty Reduction Tool

Broad-based wage growth—if we can figure out how to achieve it—would dwarf the impact of nearly every other economic trend or policy in reducing poverty. Even in 2010, the bottom fifth of working age American households relied on wages for the majority (56%) of their income. When you add in all work-based income including wage-based tax credits, nearly 70% of income for low-income Americans is work-related. Yes, the targeted efforts to strengthen the safety net are well deserved. Programs such as food stamps (SNAP), unemployment insurance, and Social Security have helped reduce poverty over the last four decades.  But market based poverty (or poverty measured using only income from wages) has been on the rise and the safety net has to work even harder to counterbalance the growing inequalities of the labor market.

There was once a strong statistical link between economic growth and poverty reduction, but rising inequality has severed it, and the results are deeply dispiriting. If the statistical link between economic growth and falling poverty that held before the mid-1970s had not been broken by rising inequality, then poverty, as the government measures it, would be virtually eradicated today. Furthermore, the impact of rising inequality is nearly five times more important in explaining poverty trends than family structure.

As the Economic Policy Institute has documented in our paper launching the Raise America’s Pay project, this rise in inequality is simply the flip side of nearly stagnant hourly wage growth for the vast majority of the American workforce in the three decades before the Great Recession. So how to reverse this wage-stagnation, especially for low-wage workers? Below is a list of proposals, all linked in their attempt to rebuild institutions that provide bargaining power to workers who have had it taken from them in recent decades.

The minimum wage is currently more than 25% below its real value in the late 1960s. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports that the Harkin-Miller bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 would cumulatively boost incomes of people below the federal poverty line by $5 billion. And this is probably too conservative; other academic research finds that the same bill would lift more than 4 million people out of poverty. Among those who would see a raise from the Harkin-Miller bill, 55% are women and 25% are women of color. Nearly one-in-five kids would see at least one parent get a raise.

We need to enforce the labor standards we have, update the ones that need it, and put power back in the hands of workers to bargain for better working conditions for themselves and their families.

Another key policy priority should be efforts to level the playing field for workers to organize and form unions. The decline in unionization over the last several decades has led to increases in wage inequality and a loss of bargaining power for workers. And this bargaining power loss is not confined to union members themselves—unions often set wage-standards for entire sectors. Importantly, the decline in unionization is not a natural, inevitable phenomenon or a result of workers no longer wanting unions. It is the result of a policy decision to allow growing employer aggressiveness to tilt the playing field against organizing drives.

This policy choice is clear when one looks at the evidence. First, unionization has held up much better in the public sector where employers have less ability to fight organizing drives. Second, in 2007, the share of non-union workers who said they wanted to be represented by a union or similar organization reached an all-time high at over 50%.   There is a growing wedge between the desire to organize and bargain collectively and workers’ ability to do so. And, third, even the most obvious form of employer aggressiveness—the firing of workers who are trying to organize—has risen sharply in recent decades, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

The fact is that the decline of unions can explain approximately one-third of the growth of wage inequality among men and approximately one-fifth among women since the 1970s. This rising wage inequality is the key driver behind stagnant wages for workers at the bottom. When low-wage workers have been able to organize, unionization is  associated with higher wages and benefits for many, including: food preparation workers, cashiers, cafeteria workers, child-care workers, cooks, housekeepers, and home-care aides.

Reducing wage theft is also particularly important to low-wage workers. Wage theft occurs when employers withhold wages that are owed to a worker, for example by requiring workers to work off the clock or refusing to pay overtime. There is widespread evidence of these practices and more—from tipped workers not being paid their wages to Apple store employees being forced to stand in line after their shift while their bags are checked for merchandise. In nearly 9,000 investigations of the restaurant industry, the wage and hour division of the Department of Labor found that 83.8% of the shops investigated had wage and hour violations —underscoring the enforcement problems.

Millions of low- and moderate-wage workers have also seen slow wage growth because they are working overtime and not getting paid for it. This is because the real value of the salary threshold under which all salaried workers, regardless of their work duties, are covered by overtime provisions has been allowed to erode dramatically. Simply adjusting the threshold for inflation since 1975 would raise it to $984 per week (or $51,000 on an annual basis), from its current level of $455 ($24,000 annually). This simple adjustment would guarantee millions of additional workers time-and-a-half pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week.

Other labor market policies and practices, which, if changed, would increase the wages of low- and moderate-wage workers, include: the misclassification of employees, such as construction workers who are deemed independent contractors so that the employer doesn’t have to pay for workers’ compensation. Just-in-time scheduling occurs when employers schedule workers erratically and sporadically, and denies workers any regularity in their schedule or pay. Think about how difficult that is for working parents who need to support their families and also find child care, or for workers who need a second job to make ends meet. Finally, paid sick time, paid family medical leave, and flexible work hours, all would support workers and their families.

The social safety net remains crucial for low-income working families in this country and also needs reforms. Everything from shoring up SNAP to extending EITC to childless adults to expanding Medicaid to people in those states which refuse federal dollars. We also should have universal pre-K and affordable and high quality child care—we need to use every tool in our toolbox to give kids a chance of success, reducing inequality at the starting gate of kindergarten.

But, if we really care about children in our country, then we also need to raise the wages of parents working hard every day to lift their families out of poverty.  We need to enforce the labor standards we have, update the ones that need it, and put power back in the hands of workers to bargain for better working conditions for themselves and their families.





Ending Child Poverty in the US: Financially Prudent, Morally Just

More than one in five children in the US lives in poverty: that’s 790,000 children in New York, 429,000 in Chicago, and 125,000 in Washington, D.C. In all, there are 16 million poor children. Child poverty is also rising, up six percentage points since the turn of the century.

Those numbers make it seem like a pretty intractable problem. After all, it’s literally millions of our children—living without adequate shelter, without healthy food, without adequate opportunities to play and learn and grow. If we’ve let things get this bad then surely child poverty must be nearly impossible to solve.

But the fact is it isn’t difficult to end child poverty, or at least to dramatically reduce it. As Austin Nichols, an economist at the Urban Institute, wrote last year:

If the United States offered cash benefits to children in poor families, we could cut child poverty by more than half. According to calculations using the 2012 Current Population Survey, poor children need $4,800 per year each, on average, to escape poverty. That’s $400 a month for each child.

If we issued a $400 monthly payment to each child, and cut tax subsidies for children in higher-income families, we would cut child poverty from 22 percent to below 10 percent. If we further guaranteed one worker per family a job paying $15,000 a year, and each family participated, child poverty would drop to under 1 percent.

A child benefit is now common across developed countries, with amounts of about $140 a month in the UK, $190 in Ireland, $130 in Japan, $160 in Sweden, and $250 in Germany.  A smaller child benefit of $150 per month would chop child poverty from 22 percent to below 17 percent. Adding the job guarantee would lower child poverty to 8 percent.

So the fact is we could end child poverty, but we’d have to give poor families money to spend on their children—and there’s a lot of evidence that simply giving poor people money works. But it would be expensive, and in these economic times surely we can’t afford it, right?

That’s actually not so clear. It would be expensive in the short run—about $76 billion annually—to spend $4,800 a year on every poor kid. But what if it’s really expensive in the long run not to?

Empirical evidence suggests that the economic costs of child poverty each year in the U.S. are about $550 billion, or 3.8 percent of GDP.

Rigorous evidence is also mounting that being born into poverty makes it much likelier that a newborn will have a range of physical ailments, and that she’ll spend significant time in poverty during her childhood. That same body of evidence shows how much likelier it is that children who spend significant time in poverty will be poor as adults. And that effect compounds: the more time in child poverty, the worse the outcomes when the child reaches adulthood—including outcomes for health, education, economics, and criminal justice.

In other words we know—when a baby is born—if she’s likely to be poor as a child and therefore poor as an adult. And we know that if she’s poorer as an adult, she will have worse educational outcomes and less productivity in the job market. Her kids will likelier be poor and unhealthy, and the family as a whole will rely more on the social safety net.

Put that all together and it gets awfully expensive fast—up to $550 billion a year, compared to $76 billion or less a year to dramatically reduce poverty.

So what if instead we spent some of that money now—up front—to help children break out of the cycle? While it’s expensive, future savings stemming from higher productivity and lower safety net spending are great. That makes it sound a lot like—wait for it—an investment! You invest money now because you expect strong returns in the future.

Dramatically reducing poverty is in fact the financially prudent thing to do, and helping 16 million American children out of poverty is the moral thing to do as well.




Calling Young Artists! National Contest to Raise Awareness about Poverty

This post originally appeared at

With the swipe of a paintbrush or click of a camera, your child can make a difference in the fight to end poverty.  Not only that, they have the chance to win exciting prizes, and have their artwork showcased in a national campaign.

As part of its mission to build the political and public will to cut poverty in half in ten years, the Half in Ten Campaign is hosting our first ever nationwide art competition with the theme Our American Dream—What Will It Take To Get There?, and the June 30th submission deadline is only two weeks away. We are calling on everyone, ages 4 to 24, to unleash their creativity and engage in a national conversation with their families, teachers, and community members about poverty and what we need to do as a nation to tackle it.

We need your help to encourage your children to participate. Moms and dads across the nation play an essential role in achieving our goal to reduce poverty as we know firsthand how important it is that children have enough nutritious food on the table, that we and/or our partners have good jobs with good wages, and that our families are secure and stable. Together, we must work to build the country that we want our kids to grow up in, and Half in Ten’s art competition is the perfect opportunity to engage our children in the process.

Aside from the chance to win prizes such as an art kit, an iPad, or a trip to DC, we will feature several winning selections in our campaign materials and reports. It’s time to build a movement against poverty—to raise our voices for the millions of fellow parents and children who struggle to make ends meet. And with your help, we can harness our kids’ collective energy and imagination to push forward.

The decisions our policymakers make today have a profound impact on children. Half in Ten’s National Art Competition offers an opportunity for children to reflect on what poverty means to them and the changes they envision for their community and the country so that everyone can achieve the American Dream.

With that, it’s time to break out the art supplies and register!  Please visit our website for further guidance, details, and frequently asked questions about the competition.





If We Want to Build a Powerful Movement for Economic Justice, Our Work on Poverty Can’t Be a ‘Separate Thing’

Fifty years after President Johnson declared war on poverty, it’s time to reimagine anti-poverty work for the next fifty years. In doing so, one thing seems central: the need to build a broad-based progressive movement for economic justice and security. This movement needs to encompass not just the 15 percent living below our outmoded poverty line, but all people who struggle to make ends meet and aren’t getting the dignity, security, and compensation they deserve.

Much of our current approach to poverty dates back to the early 1960s. At that time, America was commonly viewed as an affluent society in which prosperity was widely shared. But there was growing recognition that we had a pesky poverty problem. The general sentiment back then is captured in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which declared that the benefits of economic prosperity were “widely shared throughout the nation” but “poverty continues to be the lot of a substantial number of our people.” There was also a view that people living in poverty were a distinct minority, one very different from those in the middle and working classes. To cite perhaps the most influential example, Michael Harrington’s 1962 book on poverty, elites often thought of low-income people as “a different kind of people” living in an “other America.”

Given this, it seemed technically possible in the 1960s to eliminate poverty through a targeted approach that mostly relied on narrowly means-tested benefits and services along with education and training. And this approach seemed politically possible, despite its costs and narrow targeting, because it was assumed that the middle class would become increasingly prosperous and thus have little objection to expanding targeted programs until poverty was eliminated.

It could have worked. As economist Elise Gould has highlighted, if the gains from economic growth had continued to be shared with middle- and low-income people in the same way as they were in the initial decades following World War II, the official poverty rate would have fallen to somewhere near zero in the 1980s.

As a result, the real incomes of Americans in both the bottom and middle of the income distribution have barely budged since the late 1970...shared prosperity is at best a distant memory, something Baby Boomers tell the grandkids about.

Of course, that’s not what happened, in large part because of what President Reagan called the conservative “reorientation of the role of the federal government in our economy” and the consequent growth in inequality over the last several decades. As a result, the real incomes of Americans in both the bottom and middle of the income distribution have barely budged since the late 1970s, even as productivity continued to grow steadily and those at the top have seen extraordinary gains. Shared prosperity is at best a distant memory, something Baby Boomers tell the grandkids about.

Adding insult to injury, conservatives have consistently used their own version of “other America” rhetoric to cast low-income people as idle takers who are dependent on benefits paid for with middle-class tax dollars. According to this logic, poverty is mostly a matter of bad behavior abetted by means-tested programs created by a bunch of ‘60s liberals. And the extent to which our economy and social contract no longer work as they should for millions of low- and middle-income Americans is viewed as beyond the scope of a discussion of poverty.

Hence, Rep. Paul Ryan’s “inner city” comments, his immensely strange idea that his “work on poverty is a separate thing” from his slash and burn budgets, and the restricted purview of his recent report on the War on Poverty, which neglects to mention many of our most effective anti-poverty strategies, like the minimum wage, unions, and Social Security.

We live in a vastly different economy and have a very different politics than fifty years ago. This means we can’t think of poverty like Paul Ryan does, as a “separate thing” from growing inequality or the well-founded concerns that millions of middle-income Americans have about their own economic security, and that of their children. As Sr. Simone Campbell put it recently, “If we just combat poverty, we are only going to be focusing on a symptom.” To make real progress going forward, we need to build and be part of a progressive movement that modernizes the social contract—the set of public and private structures designed to promote economic security and opportunity—and makes shared prosperity a reality from the bottom up and the middle out.

The profound economic change we’ve seen also means we can’t afford to think of the anti-poverty movement as a “separate movement”—a “for-poor-people-only” movement—that focuses solely on means-tested programs, and is separate from the labor, women’s and other cross-class economic justice movements. Along these lines, Gov. Ted Strickland made an important point in a post last month:

 … sometimes missing from progressive consciousness … is an awareness of the importance of organized labor. We became as egalitarian as we did as a nation because working people gained power and influence by banding together and bargaining for better wages and benefits and safety conditions. And as economic disparities have increased over these last few decades, the influence of organized labor has decreased. So whether it’s the same paradigm or not, we’ve got to find some way for people to act collectively in their self-interest. 

Some of the best work addressing the challenge Gov. Strickland identifies has been highlighted by in recent months, including the work of Caring Across Generations, Jobs with Justice, the Fight for $15 in Seattle, Center for Community Change Action’s economic justice campaign, Witnesses to Hunger, and other local efforts to engage low-income people in advocacy as Joel Berg and others call for. But we also need more of the kind of cross-class, dues-paying citizen and membership associations that Theda Skocpol has argued are necessary to “re-democratize” politics, and to link local groups to debates in Washington, D.C.

Because this is such an essential conversation, it can’t be limited to a relative few working in think tanks, national advocacy organizations, national foundations, and privileged academic posts. So I hope that will continue to spark lively conversation about what anti-poverty advocacy and research should become over the next decade and beyond, and bring lots of new and diverse voices into this debate.