States Adopt Bold Anti-Poverty Measures
By Christine Vestal, Staff Writer
As the economy falters and the ranks of the poor multiply, states for the first time in recent memory are mounting high-profile, comprehensive campaigns aimed at radically reducing poverty - many with an emphasis on children.
At least 15 states and the District of Columbia have created bi-partisan commissions to narrow the widening gap between the rich and the poor by eliminating barriers - such as lack of education, poor transportation and inadequate child care that prevent many from finding better jobs and escaping chronic poverty. In addition, the states are working to help disadvantaged children in the hope of breaking the generational cycle of poverty.
"It's striking how many states have taken on poverty as a top policy priority," Jack Tweedie, poverty director at the National Conference of State Legislatures , told Stateline.org. "No one even used the word 'poverty' in the past. It was all about helping working families."
Advocates for the poor say the new state poverty initiatives mark a sea change in political support for an issue that has languished for decades. And with the possibility of a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic Congress, some are optimistic the federal government also will take up the mantle and increase state assistance programs.
But others question whether the high-profile projects will translate into real progress in reducing poverty.
So far, Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington state have adopted broad anti-poverty programs, according to Jodie-Levin Epstein, Deputy Director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), a national advocacy group for the poor.
Although the national poverty rate declined from 22 percent in 1959 to 12 percent in 2006, most of the progress was achieved by the 1970s and very little has changed since, according to a recent report by Levin-Epstein. In addition, many living above the federal poverty line of $21,200 a year for a family of four struggle to make ends meet, the report says.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made national headlines last month when he proposed replacing the federal poverty line with a new gauge that better reflects the local costs of basic necessities. Most state policymakers also consider the federal measure outmoded and many are developing new guidelines that account for the state's tax structure and include local costs of housing, transportation, energy and health care.
In Vermont, for example, the state's legislative Child Poverty Council found that housing, heating oil and transportation costs were among the biggest burdens for low-income families in the chilly, mostly-rural state, Tweedie said.
In contrast, Alabama's Poverty Task Force found low wages, inadequate spending on education and tax policy among the major culprits.
What the new state programs have in common is broad political support, community involvement and new measures of what low-income families and individuals need to become self-sufficient. In addition, some states are setting specific poverty reduction goals, and several are focusing on child poverty and extreme poverty, said Mark Greenberg, poverty director at the Center for American Progress.
"These new state and local efforts are important because they reflect a greater level of engagement and commitment by legislators and governors," Greenberg said. "States are also putting pressure on the federal government to do more."
But some experts are concerned the blue-ribbon panels may not maintain the momentum needed to make a difference.
"I'm all for these programs, but I'm very skeptical," Ron Haskin, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution told Stateline.org . "A lot of initiatives don't produce good results. The political support is there now, but if you want an impact on poverty you need a 10-year program," said Haskins, who served as White House poverty adviser to President George W. Bush.
Others argue that long-range strategies should be accompanied by immediate remedies.
In Connecticut, the first state in the nation to set a child poverty reduction target, advocates for the poor argue that an expanded earned income tax credit vetoed last year by Republican Gov. Jodi Rell would have gone a long way to alleviating the strains on poor families.
But state Rep. Jonathan Harris says even without the tax credit, the Child Poverty and Prevention Council is making progress toward its goal of cutting child poverty in half by 2014. "We're bringing people together at the table, so the efforts aren't just haphazard by individual entities, but collaborative and holistic in their approach," Harris told Stateline.org .
The National Governors Association's poverty director, Susan Golonka, applauds states' new comprehensive approach. In a recent report , Golonka wrote that if states are going to "turn the tide" on poverty, they must support a broad range of programs, including partnerships with the private sector, community-based efforts and tax strategies.
This year, Iowa lawmakers approved a state-supported summit on poverty and Maine set five-, 10- and 20-year targets for percentage reductions in the number of people living in or near poverty.
In addition, Illinois lawmakers unanimously approved a proposal to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015. The new law, which Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich is expected to sign this month, creates a commission of lawmakers, non-profit advocates, and officials from 14 state agencies, including corrections, child welfare, education, health, human rights and economic development.
"When we showed lawmakers how much poverty and extreme poverty was in their districts, it really did change their minds. They understood the urgency of taking action," said Amy Rynell, director of Heartland Alliance , a coalition of 225 advocacy groups in the state. In 2006, Illinois had more than 700,000 people living below half of the federal poverty line - which is $11,000 per year for a family of four.
While most states aim to reduce poverty, Minnesota wants to eliminate it.
Gregory Gray, director of Minnesota's Legislative Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020 said he's confident the program will maintain its political momentum because it started as a local faith-based movement that won unanimous legislative support for funding. Lawmakers' only worry was that the commission would issue a report that landed on a shelf, Gray said.
But if the past is proof, Minnesota's poverty commission can be expected to yield results. According to Gray, a similar effort in the 1980's spawned innovative anti-poverty programs throughout the state and slashed Minnesota's poverty rate currently the eighth lowest in the nation.