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OP-ED | Fighting Poverty Beyond the Minimum Wage

by Susan Bigelow | Mar 28, 2014 6:55am
(6) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion, Poverty


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.

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(6) Comments

posted by: ocoandasoc | March 28, 2014  4:57pm

Maybe the CT legislature can form an Anti-Poverty Council or Task Force. Or maybe even a Commission or a whole new State of CT Department.
Or maybe they can just pass a law that makes it illegal to be poor. You can laugh, but that would have about as much effect on poverty as anything they’ve done in the last three decades.
Poverty in Connecticut is a function of education disparity, economic stagnation and stratification, cultural indifference, and the simple but decidedly politically incorrect fact that what poor, uneducated and unmotivated kids do best is make more poor, uneducated and unmotivated kids.
It is too hard for the legislative leaders to admit the mistakes they’ve made and the time they’ve wasted and then take on the difficult and politically treacherous tasks of making the needed changes. So instead they look for easy tasks that they can accomplish and then tout to voters who should know better. (Yeah, things like raising the minimum wage, appointing councils, etc.)
Lead a rational person into a kitchen where the water taps are on full but the sink drain is plugged and the continuing water overflow has the floor awash, and he will take a few quick and decisive steps.
1. Turn off the water. 2. Unplug the sink drain and clean out the sink so it doesn’t happen again. 3. Clean up the mess.  Connecticut’s legislative leaders, confronted by the same situation, would probably: 1. Ask where the mops are. 2. Appoint a mopping task force. 3. Requisition more mops. 4. Insist that all moppers be union employees and paid a living wage. 5. Fund a program that would determine the best brand of mops and mopping techniques and outline a plan for sophisticated mopper training. 6. Report back to voters a year later that because of their programs there has been a slight but important reduction in the depth of water on the kitchen floor.

posted by: Fisherman | March 28, 2014  7:53pm

“Who is responsible for poverty. Is it the government? Capitalism? Unfair systems? Luck? Something else? All of the above?”

- Have you ever considered simple, good-old laziness? Or the state’s policy of “business-unfriendliness?

posted by: justsayin | March 28, 2014  9:32pm

Again your socialist is showing. Teachers have increased at a much higher rate than students, so has spending and results have continued to fall. Min wage will hurt the majority not help all data points to this. Extending unemployment hurts also lots of data on this. Money will not solve these issues so please stop spending ours, the tax payers.

posted by: art vandelay | March 29, 2014  11:04pm

art vandelay

Susan,
You summed up your entire thesis in the following statement.  “During the Boom Years of the 80’s the rate dropped to an amazing 2.9 % (1989), just before spiking up to 8.6 % by 1991 and 11.7 % in 1996”.  What you neglect to state is the reason why.
The answer is simple. Ronald Reagan’s economic policies took full effect by 1989 & the economy prepared.  Unfortunately the D Democrats under William O’Neill spent every dime they got their hands on and created a deficit.  The Democrats under the leadership of Lowell Weicker instituted an income tax in 1991. It sank this state into a recession from which it never recovered.  Your statistics clearly point this out.  Unfortunately Liberals & Progressives never pony up to their mistakes.

posted by: art vandelay | March 29, 2014  11:09pm

art vandelay

One other fact you fail to mention is that Lyndon Johnson the iconic progressive declared a “War on Poverty”.  Since his administration our nation has spent trillions attempting to eradicate poverty in this country.  Guess what!  The “War on Poverty” is a failure and we as a nation have lost.  Another great failure socialists will not accept.  The money would have been much better spent in the private sector creating jobs putting people back to work.  We now have a “welfare state” thanks to your great progressives (socialists) Woodrow Wilson, FDR, LBJ, Ted Kennedy & Obama.

posted by: joemanc | March 31, 2014  2:57pm

CT had no income tax in the 80’s…that Susan is the easy part.