DMI Blog

Maureen Lane

An Alarming Rise

A recent National Academy of Science report (NAS) reveals that approximately 47.4 million Americans last year lived in poverty, 7 million more than the government's official figure. The NAS issued its data after requests from law makers and members of the administration who are looking at new ways to address poverty nationally.

The NAS calculation shows an increasing poverty rate among older adults and a decreasing poverty rate--from 19% to 17.9%--among young people because of food stamps and other welfare benefits typically received by single women with children. It is a small reduction but confirms previous reports that food stamps are effective policy.

Food stamps help all who qualify, not just women and children. They lift up farmers, families, stores and communities across the country. They can be part of a federal plan to stop childhood hunger. New recommendations for the implementation and expansion of proven policies like food stamps are being discussed and legislated as I write this post.

Federal welfare policy will be up for discussion and renewal through most of 2010. It is important that policy-makers and stakeholders from all sectors develop new collective goals to ensure that our economy recovers and that social policy positively impacts our growth. No one should forget that poor families need access to education and training, along with food stamps. Even though college is an important part of poor and low-income students' ability to move out of poverty, it is getting further and further out of reach. How is that possible?

A big part of the answer is sloppy, outdated welfare policy. Inconsistencies abound. There is a broad consensus that education and training are fundamental to a dynamic and resilient workforce. Yet while most of us agree college is effective for building the skills and credentials that enable us to confront an uncertain future, welfare policies federally and in various states actually prevent people in the most precarious economic situations from advancing through the self-determination that education and training offer.

Education and welfare policies need to adapt to shifting circumstances. Populations change and policies need to do the same. Without a process that brings people together across great divides, we will not be able to translate the patchwork of diverse experience into a productive long-term vision for our nation, state, and city. In the coming year, Welfare Rights Initiative will work closely with policy-makers, grassroots leaders and other advocates to lay the foundation for that vision. We propose a cross-jurisdictional dialogue that advances higher education opportunities for poor and low income families.

When federal welfare law changed in 1996, I was still receiving public assistance. I went to Washington, D.C. with lawyers, advocates and a few other people receiving welfare. We all sat in rooms with a lot of smart people and most of them turned out to be wrong about welfare and education policy. Next year in Washington, when many people come together to discuss welfare and education policy again, the smartest person in the room may be a woman receiving welfare and trying to move her family out of poverty.

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Posted at 1:00 PM, Nov 05, 2009 in Economic Opportunity | Education | Welfare
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