Poverty or Prosperity

general
January 1, 2001
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Dear President Bush,

Even after the record prosperity of recent years, there are large numbers of people in America who are still left behind economically. Neither you nor candidate Gore spoke much about this in the campaign; you need to address this important subject.

Our country is massively wealthier than it was twenty years ago. Yet while our gross domestic product has doubled, the average American family isn’t twice as well off. The top fifth of Americans have done well, and the top 1 percent have done extraordinarily well. In the late 1970s their total income was equal to the total income of the top 1 percent. Now the top 1 percent – or about 2.7 million people – have incomes equal to the total income of the bottom 38 percent, or 100 million people. Those at the bottom have actually lost ground.

We are in a better position than ever to do something about this. A dominant issue this coming year will be your proposals for tax cuts. I hope you will moderate the extent of what you are proposing to give the wealthy, and that you will be receptive to doing more for those in the middle and at the bottom. With the two Houses split, your leadership can evoke a positive response toward these ends from a centrist, bipartisan majority. This means expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which has always had bipartisan support, and making the current child tax credit available as a cash payment to parents who currently pay no federal income taxes.

I see five other areas where your leadership could bring important change to the country.

First, bring men – fathers, really – into the public policy discussion about poverty. The focus has been mainly on women these past few years as the country has implemented the new welfare law. Assuring that child support payments are made by fathers, paying more attention to jobs for men, and focusing on the situations of men released from jail can encourage marriage and greater involvement of fathers in the lives of their children.

Second, although funding for child care has been increased in the past few years, the need has grown even faster, with large numbers of former welfare recipients getting jobs but not earning enough to pull themselves out of poverty. There is little care for children whose parents work night shifts, or for infants and toddlers even though the welfare laws in most states require mothers to go to work when their child is 3 months old.

Third, more than 40 million Americans lack health coverage. We have made progress in recent years in extending coverage to millions of additional children through the State Child Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP. These steps have received support from members of both parties. The challenge now is twofold: get coverage to the parents of the children covered by SCHIP, and continue the progress toward universal coverage for all children. I believe it is possible to do this on a bipartisan basis.

Fourth is the issue of affordable housing. The number of families paying over 50 percent of their income for rent or living in substandard housing goes up every year, and was well over 5 million at last count. One reason why shelters for homeless families with children are filled to capacity in every major city is because rents are so high. We started to break the longstanding logjam on vouchers for low-income renters over the past two years. We need to continue that effort and invest as well in producing more units of affordable housing.

Finally, the minimum wage must be raised. Currently, families of three or more children will remain in poverty if they have no other income. The minimum wage was almost raised by a dollar this past year, and there were people in both parties who favored doing so. It could be accomplished now with your leadership.

You have indicated your commitment to involving volunteers and faith-connected groups in reducing poverty. I strongly agree with this, but I want to underscore that it will never be accomplished without a full measure of public jobs and public funding.

Peter Edelman
Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
Washington, DC

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