Routing poverty

It is only fitting that Americans continue to ensure that poverty - as much as is intelligently possible - be eradicated from the nation's social and economic landscape. That is particularly true now that new federal statistics show the rate of poverty in America once again climbing.

Having said that, what also needs to be kept in clear perspective is that the issue of poverty - and its causes - goes well beyond partisan politics. Casting blame on this or that administration or program may be emotionally satisfying for some individuals, but it will not resolve what most economists concede is an enormously complicated structural problem deep within the fabric of society itself. Nor can one honestly ignore the temperamental or intellectual traits that in some cases might contribute to a sense of personal destitution. But surely it seems fair to say that, whatever their ideological differences, most national leaders have been in broad agreement that poverty is a blight - for individuals, for families, and for the nation itself.

In that regard, recent US Census Bureau statistics on poverty represent a warning to all Americans: The national poverty rate increased to 15.2 percent last year, from 15 percent in 1982. In 1980 the rate was 13 percent. What is worrisome is that the 1983 poverty rate is the highest since 1965. It includes more than 35 million Americans.

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Americans need not be reluctant to face up to the challenge implicit in such numbers. Throughout their long history, there has been a persistent idealism on the part of the American people to aid the disadvantaged - and to rout poverty itself.

The deeper question that must be asked - and for which a national debate seems in order - is how to go about making headway against the unhappy scourge that poverty represents. Some steps seem warranted:

* Americans need better analysis of poverty itself. That a government which employs thousands of economists does not have a more definitive measurement of poverty than it does is in itself a sad commentary on the extent to which many people would either ignore the issue - or use it for political gain.

The official Census figures do not count noncash government benefits. These benefits - such as food stamps, medicaid, and housing subsidies - had a market value of around $50 billion last year. Now, it is also true that when alternative statistical measurements are made using such noncash benefits, the poverty rate still goes up, sometimes by even a larger rate of increase.

The point, however, is that the starting place in the discussion remains that of clearer measurements. The United States needs a sharper perspective as to what the increasing use of federally funded noncash benefits means for the nation's poor in terms of living standards.

* For the short term, the next year or so, there should be no fundamental tampering with the major ''safety net'' welfare programs. Indeed, the changes that have been made under the Reagan administration came primarily back in 1981. As noted in a major new study by the moderate-to-conservative American Enterprise Institute, the administration sought to reverse the real growth in the so-called safety-net programs. And it succeeded. The evidence is not yet in as to whether benefits are now being directed the most to those who need them, as sought by the administration. Nor is it yet clear whether the working poor have been especially hard hit by cutbacks in such programs, although some data suggest that may be so. But whatever, lawmakers should be careful not to reduce any of the safety net programs any further until better official analysis is forthcoming on the actual incidence of poverty in the US.

* It is important to create long-term, noninflationary economic growth. But also, short-term federal programs should be aimed at preventing additional numbers of Americans from joining the poverty ranks. Then, programs should be directed to helping those who have recently fallen upon hard times. Meantime, long-term structural programs (involving, for example, job training, relocation, etc.) would seem in order for helping those people especially hurt by poverty - such as households headed by women.

No person deserves to be left on the side of the highway in modern American society - ignored, unfed, uncared for. That is the larger challenge for the American people as they contemplate statistics about poverty.

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