The United States Census Bureau released a disappointing report in September showing that for the fourth year in a row more than 45 million Americans are living in poverty. That number is more than 9 million higher than before the recession and 15 million higher than in 2000.
Median household income is still 6.5 percent lower than before the recession began. It has especially fallen for African-Americans, the demographic group farthest behind economically in the United States. Their median household income is an inflation adjusted 13 percent lower than it was in 2000.
Indeed, judging just from the Census Bureau’s report, African-Americans are worse off than they were before President Obama was elected. Adjusted for inflation, median income is down from $57,357 in 2007 to $53,657 in 2014. The poverty rate among black adults age 18-64 is 2.8 percentage points higher than in 2007. And the poverty rate for African-American children is 2.6 percentage points higher than in 2007.
These are important issues that demand discussion and require leadership. The Census Bureau’s report came out as the presidential debate season began to heat up. And that made me think how much better it would be if instead of questions about secret service code names, or Donald Trump’s insults, the moderator would ask:
Median household income is still 6.5 percent lower than before the recession began. It has especially fallen for African-Americans, the demographic group farthest behind economically in the United States.
What would your administration do to reduce poverty and increase economic mobility?
Here are the answers I would like to hear:
- I will make helping people get full time jobs our highest priority.
- I will insist that programs which provide assistance such as food stamps, health insurance or child care also ask unemployed adults: Can we help you get back to work?
- I will make sure that government assistance meant to help people stay in the workforce by supplementing wages does just that, and doesn’t instead discourage work by making unemployment more attractive than getting a job or working full time. Too often these days, Americans are choosing to forego a higher salary and a better job because they don’t want to lose their benefits.
- At the same time, I will end government rules and regulations, including those in the Affordable Care Act, which lead employers to limit the hours of their workers. It takes full-time work to support a family in the United States today and too often I hear workers say, “I want more hours but my employer won’t offer them.” This scourge of what is coldly called “involuntary part time work” needs to end.
- Over the long run, I will help to reduce poverty by reminding Americans that children do better with two married parents. No serious person who cares about helping struggling children does not now accept that we would be much more successful in alleviating poverty and increasing opportunity if more kids were born into families with two parents. I will not be afraid to say that — not to stigmatize or to impose my personal values, but to provide honest advice to families and young people who have been misled by the false promise made by people who believe government can solve all problems.
- I will tackle the budget issues that are slowly eating away at our ability to fund important efforts to help the poor move up. If we do not rein in the growth of entitlements and handouts to the well-off, we have no hope of providing support to the struggling Americans who need help most.
- And finally, I will get our country growing again creating jobs and opportunities for all. I prefer a president who “focuses like a laser beam” on the economy; who understands that for most Americans “it’s the economy, stupid,” and who promises to “get this country moving again.” Poor Americans do not need, and will be hurt by, a president who says 2 percent growth is the best we can do.
- In the past, when we had more success fighting poverty than we do now, we combined strong work requirements in welfare, generous work supports that make low wages go farther, and a growing economy. And it worked. But during the past six years work requirements in welfare have been skirted, work supports have not been tied to full-time work, and the economic recovery has been anemic. For the sake of the 45 million Americans in poverty, we need to change that.
Robert Doar is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. From 2007-2013, he was the commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration