Poverty is alive and well in the world's richest nation, according to a recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy.
The nation's poverty rate rose to 12.6 percent in 2005, up from 11.3 percent in 2000. Now, one in eight Americans and more than one in every six children live in poverty. A total of 37 million Americans are poor, up 5 million from 2000.
"For the past few decades, 'poor' has been nothing more than a four-letter word. Not since President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed a War on Poverty in 1964 has there been a commitment by American leaders to address poverty. Political energy has focused instead on ending not poverty but welfare," the report noted.
The picture is particularly bleak for African Americans, 24.7 percent of whom lived in poverty in 2005, compared to 22.5 percent in 2000. Nearly one in three Black children under 18 years of age is poor, compared to 18.5 percent nationwide. The United States ranked second behind Mexico of the world's wealthiest countries with the highest childhood poverty rates, according to UNICEF.
Hurricane Katrina put a face on poverty in living rooms across the nation and around the world. Nearly half of Americans believed that the United States had become a nation of haves and have-nots, according to a 2005 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
This disparity is particularly evident to African Americans. According to a Pew poll in 2004, 81 percent of Blacks said they felt the rich were getting richer while the poor were getting poorer, compared to 65 percent of Whites. And among 28 developed countries, the United States stands behind Mexico in terms of widest gap between the rich and the poor, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy report.
Back in June, Princeton University held a forum on urban poverty where National Urban League Policy Institute head Stephanie Jones participated along with New York Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel and others. A resounding consensus was forged — that poverty must be put on the national agenda. They were not alone in their concern. They are among many others as worried about poverty in our nation and the world.
As part of its so-called Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations has resolved to halve the number of people living on less than a dollar a day by 2015. In August, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson made narrowing the divide one of his department's top priorities. In the U.S. Congress, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., introduced legislation in 2005 intended to reduce child poverty in the United States by 50 percent within a decade.
Connecticut passed a law calling for a 50 percent reduction in child poverty by 2014. And similar legislation in California is awaiting the governor's signature.
Poverty not only robs the poor of opportunity and breaks their spirit, it costs our nation money — well beyond the cost of direct services. For every one-percentage-point rise in the poverty rate, metropolitan areas are forced to spend an additional $27.75 per capita on non-poverty related services, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy.
That probably explains why Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced his own war on poverty in New York City, where one in five residents dwell below the poverty line. In 2002, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz launched a $2-million anti-poverty campaign in response to his city being designated the poorest major city in the nation by the U.S. Census. And the U.S. Conference of Mayors has also set up its own poverty task force, chaired by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Poverty cuts across all political lines. It is not a blue or red issue. It's, as the Center for Law and Social Policy study notes, a purple issue.
With midterm elections on the horizon, it's time to put this issue on the national agenda before it tears our nation apart. It is in everyone's best self-interest to eradicate poverty before it eradicates our democracy.
Marc H. Morial is president of the National Urban League.