States Step up Efforts in War on Poverty
by Mary Branham
Mississippi House Speaker William McCoy knows just how difficult it is to fight the war on poverty. All he has to do is look at the poor in his state—one in five Mississippians live in poverty today.
“We know we’ve got citizens that have the greatest work ethic in the world and they will take advantage,” he said. “But the taking advantage in some cases is taking a long time.”
So the Mississippi legislature took steps a few years back to prod efforts to pull people out of poverty. The House and Senate formed the Delta Revitalization Task Force in 2007 to address the extreme poverty in that region of the state. And McCoy formed a Poverty Committee in the House to consider any way possible the state could help cut the state’s poverty rate—the highest in the nation at 21.9 percent.
“We recognize the problem and recognize that Mississippi will never be what it should be without making progress in this area,” McCoy said.
He’s not alone. Several states are making a full-court press to cut poverty, which by all accounts has deepened during the Great Recession.
Despite federal anti-poverty programs, 14.3 percent of all Americans lived below the poverty threshold in 2009; that’s up from 14.2 percent in 2008, according to the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have poverty rates higher than the national average; 12 of those states are in the South.
President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address when 19 percent of all Americans lived in poverty. Many of the weapons in that war—food stamps, now called SNAP for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Medicaid and Medicare; and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families—still exist today, though they’ve undergone some changes.
Over the past few years, however, states have increased their efforts and targeted goals to reduce poverty. Jodie Levin-Epstein, deputy director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, which studies poverty across the nation, suggests a “stone soup” of reasons for the resurgence of interest in addressing poverty.
“For a long time, it had been politically unacceptable to talk about poverty and opportunity as a theme,” she said. “People promoted or attacked particular programs, but even the welfare program was discussed in terms of cutting the rolls and not about cutting poverty.”
That’s changed. Ten states have set goals to cut poverty—either child poverty, extreme poverty or poverty as a whole, Levin-Epstein said. They’re pushing toward those goals through task forces to address poverty.
“Having a task force isn’t the silver bullet to implementing the solution,” Levin-Epstein said. “Having a task force is a vital tool in driving interest in finding the solution and making sure implementation is done right.”
The solution is multi-pronged. Everything from education to tax policy can have an impact on poverty, according to Jim Ziliak, director of the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research, one of three federally designated Area Poverty Research Centers.
“One big thing many states have done is try to attempt to take a stab at long-term poverty issues by increasing investment in education, especially among very young children,” Ziliak said. “Of course pre-k programs are set up to address long-term poverty issues, not necessarily short-term.”
States also have expanded community college offerings to address the current generation of poor, he said.
McCoy, of Mississippi, can get behind such programs. He believes a good education is the key that unlocks the opportunities people need to pull themselves out of poverty.
“We’re three and four generations deep in having an inadequate education and work force training to really compete for the best jobs,” he said.
That’s one area, in particular, Mississippi is targeting. In fact, the Delta Revitalization Task Force produced several magazines emphasizing the need for education and targeted them to students in that 18-county region. And it’s one of four areas the Task Force recommended as primary goals to address poverty in the region.
But perhaps one of the best anti-poverty measures, according to Ziliak, has been the federal earned income tax credit.
“It’s been a very successful anti-poverty program at the federal level … probably the most successful anti-poverty program after Social Security, and certainly the most successful one for working adults,” he said.
Several statewide poverty task forces have recommended expanding access to such federal and state tax credits, as well as incentivizing employers and collaborating with other state agencies to serve hard-to-employ populations, increasing outreach and enrollment in the federal food stamp program and implementing more protections against predatory lending, a Center for Law and Social Policy policy document says.
Even so, the Great Recession put the skids on many programs aimed at helping the poor just when they needed them most.
“I think everybody understands the recession inherently makes it harder to meet a goal you’ve already set,” Levin-Epstein said. “That shouldn’t prevent people from thinking of setting goals. But it should make people realistic about the timeline for getting there.”
That’s especially true in the South, where poverty has been imprinted on the region for generations.
“The state of poverty in the South is that it’s getting worse,” Ziliak said. “There’s been more divergence than convergence over the last decade and some of that is clearly a byproduct of the fact that the people who got out of poverty earlier fell back in.”
The Southern rate of poverty is traditionally higher than the national average, according to Ziliak. In the 1990s, the South saw a convergence with the rest of the country as far as poverty is concerned. That’s because of more equalized expansion during the decade that hadn’t been experienced before. By about 2000, however, Southern poverty began to diverge from the national average once again.
Part of that has been the shift of manufacturing jobs from the North to the South, which made the Southern region more vulnerable, Ziliak said.
Some states used federal Recovery Act funding to create programs that would help their most vulnerable citizens through the economic hardship. Ziliak suggests one solution in times of stubbornly high unemployment rates—which have been hovering around 10 percent—would be the creation of public works jobs similar to those created by the Civilian Conservation Corps. But he also believes that window of opportunity politically closed about a year ago.
“You could imagine going in to rehab state parks, which is really how state parks got created in the ’30s, … through public works jobs,” Ziliak said.
States also could reinvest more aggressively in child support and child care subsidies to allow people to go to work, he said. Child care is expensive. For example, Ziliak said, it can take up to one-quarter of the wages a single mother in Kentucky earns. “That’s huge,” he said.
He said economic development, including addressing the tax issue and ensuring quality infrastructure, will help draw business to a state.
“One of the key anti-poverty policies we can have in this country is strong economic growth,” he said. “Setting up tax systems and education systems that foster economic growth is really the best thing that we can do.”
Whatever the situation, states are looking for solutions. Those involved with the issue know those solutions won’t come easy.
“The situation with poverty in Mississippi is still a major, major issue and a major problem,” McCoy said. “It’s something that holds the entire state back.”
And just because a special group is looking into poverty, that doesn’t mean they’ll have all the answers. In Mississippi, the House poverty committee sometimes double-refers legislation to whatever committee traditionally addresses those issues.
“It’s a very slow process,” McCoy said. “We look everywhere we can … in education, public health, economic development and so forth to make a difference.
“There’s no magic button.”
Levin-Epstein agrees. “The same politics that were there before are always going to be there,” she said. “The question is whether or not the members of task force have an opportunity to build bridges and identify solutions that they didn’t have a chance to before.”
It’s worth a shot, said McCoy, who’s entering his 32nd year in the Mississippi House of Representatives. He reflects on the people in his district, in northeast Mississippi, and knows in his gut something needs to be done.
“I live with folks that have real problems, and have real hopes and real dreams,” he said. “We keep a very optimistic spirit in this state about the future of the people here and the future of this state in general.”