OP-ED | Fighting Poverty Beyond the Minimum Wage
On Thursday Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 into law. There’s still plenty of debate about whether it will really help lift people out of poverty. However, when it comes to tackling poverty and economic inequality, passing a higher minimum wage may actually be the easy part.
The poverty rate has swung back and forth over the years as the state’s economic fortunes have waxed and waned. During the boom years of the 1980s, the rate dropped to an amazing 2.9 percent (1989), just before spiking up to 8.6 percent by 1991 and 11.7 percent by 1996. Poverty stabilized around 8 percent during the 2000s, but crept back up after the financial crisis and recession hit. This is just one measure, and an inexact one at that, but it’s indicative of the problem we face.
In 2004, the legislature passed a law calling for child poverty in Connecticut to be halved by 2014. The state established a Child Poverty and Prevention Council to develop and promote this initiative, and in 2005 that council produced a list of 67 initiatives that it believed would help.
We’re now only a few months away from the target date of June 30, 2014. Unfortunately, the percentage of children living in poverty has actually increased, from around 10.5 percent in 2004 to14.8 percent in 2012, which is the last year for which we have data. A report by the Child Poverty and Prevention Council makes sure to note that Connecticut is still doing very well on this relative to the rest of the states, and that reforms undertaken by the Malloy administration “will likely result in a reduction in child poverty over the coming years,” but otherwise doesn’t have much to say on why the poverty rate isn’t improving.
This year, President Obama is calling for more anti-poverty programs in his budget, hoping to spark an election-year showdown with Republicans on the issue. Presidents from LBJ to Obama have taken runs at reducing or eliminating poverty, but few have had much success. The same is true in Connecticut.
The government does a lot of short-term fixes, like heating oil assistance and protecting SNAP benefits. But the bigger causes of poverty are more difficult to get at, and far more politically difficult to manage.
For instance, the gap between rich and poor is getting worse and worse. Raising the minimum wage is difficult enough, but how do we solve the problem of more and more money going to the people at the top? A lot of lawmakers don’t even think that this is a problem.
Also, anti-poverty campaigners say that reforming both education and health care is absolutely essential for lifting people out of poverty. We’ve made very little progress, unfortunately.
Obamacare will hopefully keep some people from being buried under a mountain of medical debt, but politicians seem completely unwilling to move any further with health care for another generation.
The education reforms that have been tried over the past decade have been half-baked, roundly criticized, and ultimately too weak or short-sighted to really reform much of anything. No Child Left Behind and Common Core are too preoccupied with tests instead of what really works, which is smaller classrooms, more teachers, and more individualized support for kids who need it. As for higher education, tuition at state schools keeps rising, making them less and less accessible.
Better social services would help, too. We need more affordable housing, better ways of getting around, and fewer people left to rot in jail.
And, of course, we desperately need to get the economy moving again. More jobs and opportunity will be good for everyone.
The problem, unfortunately, is that we can’t agree on how we should be doing any of these things, or, in some cases, if we should be doing them at all. A lot of this is a fundamental disagreement on who is responsible for poverty. Is it the government? Capitalism? Unfair systems? Luck? Something else? All of the above?
That’s why the next steps in helping people out of poverty are going to be so difficult to manage. My worry is that we’ll be content with the little that’s being done, and not work to address some of the root causes of poverty. I especially worry that this will happen because most fixes that experts recommend cost an awful lot of money.
In the meantime, though, the minimum wage will go up to $10.10/hour by 2017. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing, either.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.