Welfare is a Bad Word, but Poverty Keeps Growing

High national poverty rate demands response from next president.

ByABC News

Nov. 19, 2007 — -- Opportunity 08 is an ABC News project with the Brookings Institution to help presidential candidates and the public focus on critical issues facing the nation.


This week Opportunity 08 takes a closer look at poverty, and how the next president should address the growing gap between the rich and poor in a way that satisfies all Americans.

On Tuesday, President Bush vetoed $150.7 billion in discretionary spending for the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services.

This and other budget-related battles call into question how much money the president is willing to spend domestically -- a question that becomes especially important in light of the nation's growing poverty rate and inequality.

Poverty overwhelms 13 percent of all Americans and 18 percent of America's children -- rates higher than those in the 1970s.

Brookings Institution experts Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins view this as an alarming call to action. Yet, Lyndon Johnson was the last president to focus on the nation's poverty as a key campaign plank or administrative objective.

Sawhill and Haskins see an opportunity for our next president to break this trend and end this plight.

Americans have never liked welfare and tend to believe that anyone who gets an education and works hard can succeed. Policies intended to reduce poverty and inequality must be consistent with these values.

Sawhill and Haskins say their poverty relief recommendations are not free handouts; instead, they say, they would provide the largest benefits to those who work full-time.

"These are the families who are playing by the rules but who do not have the skills to earn a wage that would allow them and their children to join the middle class. As shown by polling data and public support for a higher minimum wage, most Americans want to help this group."

To uplift this group, Sawhill and Haskins propose requiring and rewarding work by strengthening work requirements in government assistance programs, increasing the minimum wage, expanding the earned income tax credit, and subsidizing child care for low-wage workers.

Next, to counter the breakdown of the two-parent family structure, Sawhill and Haskins advise the promotion of marriage as the best child-rearing environment and effective teen pregnancy prevention and family planning efforts.

Finally, the scholars say that while improvement is needed at every level of schooling, they advise greater investment in high-quality early education.

They say that improved preschool programs are more effective than virtually any other intervention in boosting test scores, helping children perform at grade level and avoiding special education costs, increasing high school graduation rates, and producing better economic and social outcomes in the adult years.

Sawhill and Haskins place a price tag of $38 billion per year in new federal funding, but they push for fully covering the costs by cutting spending or tax preferences in other areas.

A full version of the proposal, as well as supporting background material, is available at Opportunity 08.

Isabel V. Sawhill

Isabel V. Sawhill is a Brookings senior fellow and a co-director of the Center on Children and Families. She is an expert on issues related to the federal budget, poverty, and inequality. She was an Associate Director at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton Administration.

Ron Haskins Ron Haskins is a senior fellow and co-director of the Center on Children and Families. He is an expert on welfare, preschool, foster care, and poverty. Haskins was a Republican Congressional staff director instrumental in the welfare reform law of 1996, and served President Bush as Senior Advisor for Welfare Policy.

Opportunity 08

Opportunity 08 aims to help 2008 presidential candidates and the public focus on critical issues facing the nation, presenting policy ideas on a wide array of domestic and foreign policy questions. The project is committed to providing both independent policy solutions and background material on issues of concern to voters.

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