As a state senator Doug Racine spearheaded a campaign to focus attention on childhood poverty. One result of his work was the creation of the Childhood Poverty Council, with Racine as chairman, which set a goal in 2007 of cutting childhood poverty in half by 2017.
Soon enough 2008 arrived, and the nation plunged into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In 2010 Vermonters elected Gov. Peter Shumlin, and Shumlin appointed Racine to be secretary of human services. Last week Secretary Racine came before the Childhood Poverty Council to declare, “I find this to be a very difficult and frightening time.” He was no longer talking of cutting childhood poverty in half. Now he talks only of slowing its increase.
Between 2007 and 2012 the rate of childhood poverty rose in Vermont from 12.4 percent to 15 percent. The number of Vermonters on the state’s welfare program, called Reach Up, rose by 20 percent. In some school districts as many as half the students qualify for reduced-price lunches, which means they are from low-income families.
The persistence and breadth of poverty and the erosion of opportunity form a backdrop to the political crisis that has paralyzed the nation in recent years. As the economy has shrunk and changed, it has cast off millions of workers and thrown millions of families into poverty. At the same time, pressure from Republicans has forced the federal government to cut back on the programs supporting those families. Today assaults on the poor continue, as Republicans work to enact reductions in food stamps, to thwart health care reform, and to effect an overall decline in federal spending.
Poverty is not something that happens to a few people living in a culture of dependency in those out-of-the-way neighborhoods we prefer mostly to avoid. New studies have described how poverty is a widely shared, temporary experience, made less temporary when vital assistance is not available.
Mark R. Rank, a professor of social welfare, has found that 54 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will spend a year in or near poverty (below 150 percent of the poverty line) sometime in their lives. Forty percent will spend at least a year below the poverty line.
Conditions such as welfare use, near poverty or unemployment will touch 80 percent of Americans at some point in their lives. Half of all children will live in households using food stamps for a period.
Rank’s research, which he described in The New York Times, shows that poverty is a temporary condition. People will find themselves in poverty for a year or two, but then they will find a job and climb their way up. There are pockets of entrenched poverty, but the number of people for whom poverty is a persisting way of life is small, Rank found. Two-thirds of those experiencing poverty are white, and poverty is spread among urban neighborhoods, suburbs, small towns and rural regions. Suburban poverty has been growing rapidly in recent years.
The social safety net that exists helps mitigate the harshest effects of poverty, but Rank found that benefits for the poor are more meager in the United States than in any other industrialized nation. Poverty exists, in part, because we do so little to help people climb out. Poor people mostly want to work and improve their lot. When they have enough to eat, a safe, warm place for their children to live, health care coverage and prospects for a job that will support them, poverty will decrease.
The momentum in Washington is heading toward greater budget cuts. Racine acknowledged that at the state level funding decisions are out of his hands. Shumlin has pledged not to raise taxes, which means that new steps to mend the social safety net are not likely. Those who are concerned for the many Vermonters who are holding on, just at the margin of poverty, or who have slipped over are probably hoping to avoid additional whacks at social programs like those Shumlin attempted earlier this year.
As far as cutting childhood poverty in the immediate future, Racine pronounced himself “pessimistic.”
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