Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Face of Poverty: an Appeal to President Obama

TO: Barak Obama, United States President
FROM: A Social Work Graduate Student
DATE: December 15th, 2009

Reducing poverty in the United States by fifty percent

Campaign pledges

In the 2008 presidential campaign candidate Barak Obama pledged to reduce poverty in the U.S. by 50 percent. He has now been elected to office and you have been selected to present a plan to fulfill that promise. Write a memo discussing how this can be accomplished. Include a discussion of the important lessons learned since the New Deal for dealing with poverty, including the role social workers and the social work profession will have in this plan. Imagine, create, elaborate.

The face of poverty can be seen throughout American society. Poverty costs the United States an estimated $500 billion every year, which is 4% of gross domestic product. Tens of millions of Americans currently live in poverty, and an even greater number live at less than double the poverty line (Center for American Progress Task Force on Poverty, 2007). It is amazing that poverty is so pervasive in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Mr. President, one of your campaign promises was to sufficiently raise the standard of living for half of poor Americans. You will find several helpful suggestions contained in this memo.

In depth context of the problem

As you are well aware, the problem of poverty is not a new one, and neither is the cause to fix it. Since the New Deal there have been many successful and failed attempts at reducing poverty and raising the standard of living for Americans. You are a professor of government and history, so I will not bore you with the details, just outline a few areas of attempted reform: healthcare, retirement benefits, emergency and sustained aid for the poor, education and job training, technology, job creation, and supporting economic growth through financial policy.

Social welfare through tax credits, safety nets

By inadequately supporting struggling families on welfare, cash assistance, unemployment, and food aid, we create more work for ourselves in the future. The present system supports poverty, not opportunity. The following changes, if implimented, will drastically reduce poverty: increase the earned income tax credit, increase tax credits for having children, increase tax credits for paying rent, increase welfare and food stamps to a livable level. We must not forget that raising a child is the most important job in the world. Children from healthy and economically stable familes fare better in life. We must provide a safety net for families, and not blame people for their misfortune.

Modernization, not expansion

Modernizing state and federal benefits programs such as food stamps, unemployment, social security, Medicare, and others would benefit poor Americans. Much time is wasted waiting in lines, arranging transportation, and filling out paperwork. A user-friendly and well integrated system would save vital time and resources, as well as reduce the stigmatization that occurs when people must wait for hours in outdated, dingy and crowded surroundings.

Affordable care

Healthcare reform is a massive endeavor. One area worth highlighting is in regards to children and families. Many federal and state programs have provided aid to children via food, childcare and healthcare, while leaving parents insufficiently supported. This practice keeps children at risk and increases stressors for the parents. Since parents are obviously the primary support for children, children suffer from the effects of parental stress and misfortune. Overall conditions for children remain poor due to parental economic woes (Speiglman, 2008). When reforming healthcare and family aid, please treat the family as a unit. Better yet, nationalize healthcare. The United States is embarrassingly behind the times in this area.

Providing real job training

In regards to job training for the poor and uneducated, one major lesson has been learned: simply training people for jobs is not sufficient to move them out of poverty. Many programs over the years implemented by the federal government have failed to get people hired. Some Americans describe such programs as worse than leaving them untrained. Far too often, people have been trained for jobs or careers, only to get discouraged after months or years of unemployment afterward. Programs such as Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) were more successful because some funds were used to create "socially useful" jobs (Naples, 1998).

It cannot be stressed enough that investing in education is the best way to ensure a sound economy. One of the many examples of education at work: the California State University System returns four dollars for every dollar invested into it.

Emotional development and support in education

A long time ago, psychology, emotional management, and personal growth courses ought to have introduced into schools at every level - preschool, elementary, junior high, high school, and higher education. We must teach affect regulation. We must experientially teach students how to repair broken relationships. We must use evidence based practices for building affect regulation and healthy communication. We must increase everyone's emotional vocabulary and teach them how their brains work. The gap between the body of sound psychological science and the average person's knowledge of psychology is unacceptable. What good is an education if it teaches you nothing about yourself? What difference does it make if we cannot work together?

It is time to adjust the educational schedule to match advances in society. Schools no longer need to give students a summer break so they can help their family harvest crops. A year round schedule would allow students to spend more time learning. Also, breaks from school could be designed to allow students necessary reprieve while reducing the amount of knowledge lost from too much time away from their studies.

Poor students have a much lower completion rate at all education levels (Center for American Progress Task Force on Poverty, 2007). Several adjustments would be helpful. Schools could be given incentives to boost completion rates, especially in higher education. The grant and loan system could be integrated and better funded. College savings could be made tax free, or better yet, incentivise college saving through tax credits.

Maintaining science and secularism in education to reduce poverty

Another way to empower the poor would be to commission a task force which combats the far Right's so-called "epidemic of secularism." From strictly an economic outlook, the manifestations of this viewpoint subvert womens rights and increase poverty, This is not because faith-based programs are significantly worse than secular programs, but because faith-based programs bring a host of patriarchical, judgmental, and nonscientific ideals that stand to systemically oppress, harm, and blame (Solinger, 2001).

An example of religion doing unnecessary and unintentional harm to the poor is evident when looking at abstinence-only sex education. Teens are wired to have sex. Teaching abstinence does not reduce teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. Teaching safe sex is a proven way to dramatically reduce the economic burden of sexual activity (Center for American Progress Task Force on Poverty, 2007).

It is time we disallowed religion to dictate policy and opened the benefits of marriage and full citizenship to people of non-straight sexual orientations. Allowing adoption by same sex couples is a humanitarian and economically responsible route to a better future.

Marriage for everyone

Roberts identified five reasons why married couples might be better off socioeconomically (2004). Sharing of expenses saves couples and families money and allows them to accumulate wealth together, as well as include both of them in money management in many cases. Sharing of income doesn't occur as freely in cohabiting households. Just like the old saying, two heads are better than one. There is a higher income potential in married houses, and greater insurance against an unplanned layoff or injury. Some studies have linked being married to an increase in work hours and income in men, suggesting that they have more motivation to earn. Often there is a division of labor in a married family, which frees up resources. Finally, extended family and others may be more likely to gift money or other economically relevant resources to families, allowing the accumulation of wealth to begin earlier and occur quicker.

Smart support of energy innovators

Investing in sustainable energy, particularly nuclear and solar energy, will eventually reduce the cost of energy and free up resources to be used elsewhere. Such investments will reduce the burdon of energy costs on the poor.

Such reforms will inevitably be expensive. However making investments in the above areas will produce a worthwhile return, in both financial and humanitarian terms. One issue that arises at the present is how to pay for the reforms.

Putting money where it is needed

I propose a massive shift in spending from two areas: the military and corrections. In defense of military spending, it cannot be denied how influential military technology has been in advancing consumer technology. These advances come with great costs, and precede our society's level of maturity. Most of the "threats" we perceive are created by the military's hypervigilence and boredom. That said, I propose a drastic cut to the military, and a return to our founder's principles. It was never the intention of our founders to have a standing military. Even modest military spending cuts will be enough to take care of all the reforms outlined in this memo.

Correction to corrections

Our country's approach to corrections is another unnecessary money pit. Divert minor drug possession or sales into evidence based treatment. Introduce a series of progressive increases to alcohol and tobacco taxes. The income can be used to fund mental health and medical treatment for resulting problems. Divert minor assault and violent offenses into treatment. Investments in the spectrum of education and welfare will reduce crime as well. Corrections works best when the state acts as a parent to a person who was poorly parented. Introducing restorative justice techniques will help fill in the developmental gap and stop the cycle of blaming people for their inability to raise themselves.

Rich people - make them pay taxes

Closing tax loopholes for large corporations and extremely wealthy Americans would raise enough money to fund many of the reforms noted in this memo (Center for American Progress Task Force on Poverty, 2007). The percentage of taxes paid by the poor is higher. This needs to change so that the poor pay either the same proportion or less in taxes. The wealthy and powerful are better equipped to bear the burdens of society.

Finally, the worst that can happen is that the goal is too ambitious, and is only partially met. For example, your target reduction is fifty percent. The worst that can happen is that we fall short this time, and only reduce poverty by twenty percent, or thirty percent, or forty percent. Setting quantifiable reform targets increase motivation, accountability, and the likelihood that they are met (Levin-Epstein & Lyons, 2009)

The plan outlined in this memo is relatively straight forward. We must invest in families, healthcare, education, science, and treatment. Overall, it is an investment in the ideal that all Americans deserve prosperity and quality of life. At this point, making the needed reforms is not a question of "why," "what," "how," or "if." We have before us a question of "when."

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