America’s Poverty Crisis Is Worse Than You Think

The strategic plan and a high-level architecture to attack poverty in 21st century America begins with three solution sets:

First, tell the truth.

Official government numbers sadly underestimate the problems of poverty in America. If we can’t get the numbers right, we will never get the policies and programs right.

Officially, the 2017 federal poverty level is $12,060 for one individual and $24,600 for a family of four.  In 2016, the U.S. poverty rate was 12.7% with about 41 million Americans including 14 million children living in poverty.

The child poverty rate of 19% is consistent with federal estimates of child hunger – about one in five children lack consistent access to sufficient and healthy food. For minority children, about one in three African American, Native American and Hispanic American children live in poverty often without access to sufficient food. Globally, we rank 1st in wealth and 18th in the number of children living in poverty.

Even these gloomy numbers are too low.

Many dispute the government’s interpretation of poverty levels and rates by questioning whether rules created in the 1960s take into account basic living expenses in 2017. Count me as one of those who believe that poverty in America is about twice the official federal numbers with nearly 100 million Americans  living in or near poverty.

Research from organizations such as the National Center for Children in Poverty and the Economic Policy Institute calculated the sum of food, housing, transportation, health care, child care, taxes and other expenses for a modest standard of living and concluded that poverty in America touches nearly 50% of the population.

These analyses suggest that doubling the official formula and then building programs for both the 100% and 200% federal poverty levels would yield better outcomes.

Some programs already trend in this direction. For example, children living in households at 185% or less of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced lunch.

Related data support this broader view:

National numbers only tell part of the story – states and counties show vastly different ranges of children and families in poverty. Recognizing realities means we must fund geographically targeted policies and programs.

Second, it’s about jobs, stupid.

To grow the economy, we need two to three million new jobs every year for 10 years – full time jobs with strong salaries and benefits. This vision is more than a good job for every American – real jobs for far more people is the only pathway to making America truly competitive in the global economy.

The most talked about – and mostly unrealized – proposals for dramatic job growth are the infrastructure plans. Wise investments of one trillion dollars could yield about four million new infrastructure jobs. For me, “wise” means designing and building next generation highways, railways, waterways, airways, bridges, ports, pipelines, water systems and a sustainable electric grid.

Next generation jobs mean building for the future so the framework of a 21st century economy must be 100% clean energy. The foundation is a truly 21st century education system.

The urgency of 100 million adults struggling in or near poverty and without meaningful work calls for immediate solutions, not just mid-term and long-term infrastructure plans.

Immediate solutions must start with a modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps that provided millions of federal-funded jobs during the Great Depression, primarily in national parks.

An updated approach would fund millions of jobs to rebuild where floods and fires have damaged so many neighborhoods; to retrofit old homes with energy efficient insulation; to renovate dilapidated housing; and to support schools and after-school programs in neighborhoods where state funding fails low-income neighborhoods.

Yes, such national service programs exist today. My favorite is AmeriCorps, which annually hires about 80,000 people under age 26 for many of these types of work projects and easily stands as the best existing model for comprehensive scale.

In addition, many communities have urgent needs that nationally could absorb millions of jobs, such as:

Third, Set Priorities and Coordinate Across Government

Old models to address poverty in America were based on hierarchy. One agency took the lead and sometimes other agencies allocated money from their individual budgets.

In the 21st century, effective governance and solving complex problems requires coordination and integration across agencies at all levels of government and with non-government partners including the residents of distressed communities.

A concerted attack on poverty in America means all relevant federal departments give priority to communities with the highest rates of poverty and other indicators of concentrated distress.

Priority means going into agency budgets to put new requirements into the contracting and budgeting systems – requirements that surge resources to fund jobs and improvements in our poorest and lowest income communities.

Coordination is fundamental when unemployment, low wages, hunger, homelessness, lousy schools, environmental poisons, and inadequate access to health care all co-exist.

Problems cross boundaries and so must solutions. Only a structural shift from isolated bureaucracies to “whole of government” strategies will address the root causes of deep and sustained poverty.

The secret sauce includes “enduring mechanisms of coordination” such as inter-agency policy committees and citizen advisory boards. The drivers of poverty are all connected and the most successful actions will always be “whole of government” strategies.

And paying for all this? As a political candidate, my platform was very clear:

Fix Government, Build Peace. Accomplishing all that included Track 1:  Cut One Trillion Dollars of Government Waste and Invest Those Savings in Our Communities. That appalling level of waste still exists.

Indeed, the December 7, 2017 historic announcement that the Department of Defense is launching its first-ever agency-wide financial audit came after investigations found the Pentagon had buried an internal report showing $125 billion in administrative waste.

Good governance means we must be honest about the damage our failed federal departments and agencies have delivered on our nation. Attacking poverty in America demands integrity about data, then balances immediate and long-term solutions, while coordinating government-wide priorities and investments.

Viewing governance as a living system, these solution sets create a virtuous cycle – when good things start to happen, more good things can be expected.