Defeating poverty requires bold agenda - Sen. Wellstone, D, MN

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Fri, 23 Jul 1999 18:43:32 -0700 (PDT)


http://www.globe.com/dailyglobe2/198/oped/Poverty_can_be_defeated_but_it_require
s_a_bold_agendaP.shtml
FWD  Boston Globe - July 17, 1999 - page A15

     POVERTY CAN BE DEFEATED - BUT IT REQUIRES A BOLD AGENDA

     By Paul Wellstone

As the seven-year mark of his presidency nears, President Clinton ventured
forth recently to tour some of America's ''stubborn pockets of poverty''
and to articulate his policies on combating poverty before the stark
backdrop of boarded-up shops, ghetto streets, and lonesome rural shacks.
For a few days, mainstream complacency about poverty gave way to healthy
attention to the challenges of a problem that is invisible to many of us.
For that we can thank the president.

The pictures from Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the Pine Ridge Indian
Reservation, and Watts poignantly remind us how much still needs to be
done, but also how little national leadership and commitment there has been
on this issue during  ''the longest peacetime economic expansion in
history.''

Despite this celebrated period of prosperity, both the quantity and the
quality of poverty have increased significantly. Today, 14 million American
children - close to one in four - are growing up poor. Nearly one in three
children of color is poor. Six and a half million children live in extreme
poverty in households with family incomes less than one-half those at the
poverty line. There is more poverty in America now than there was 30 years
ago, and childhood poverty has grown by a fifth since the 1980s. The income
gap between the wealthiest and the rest of America also has grown wider,
while the average family has less real income than in the 1980s. Many parts
of our cities and overlooked rural areas struggle with poverty levels of a
Third World country.

The president's ''new markets initiative'' tour loaded CEOs onto Air Force
One to visit poor America in conscious imitation of a typical trade mission
to an emerging market somewhere in the Third World. Throughout, the
president promised subsidies of corporate investment, such as enterprise
zones, tax credits, and federal loan guarantees that are at the heart of
his poverty policy. Certainly, if the federal government is going to help
American businesses invest overseas, it should help them invest at home.
But we must avoid adopting a Third World model of investment that depends
on low wages, sweatshop-like working conditions, and a lack of
environmental controls.

I believe it is a birthright that when you work full time in America, you
shouldn't have to be poor. Beyond Clinton's ''new markets'' approach, there
are proven policies to help Americans lift themselves out of poverty.
Granted, it requires a bold agenda, but this period of prosperity offers
probably the best opportunity in our lifetime to rejoin the fight against
poverty.

The problem is not one of isolated ''pockets,'' but of pervasive and
widespread low incomes for millions of Americans. The key to ending
poverty, and especially childhood poverty, is first to raise family income.
And it is clear that we know what the keys to higher family income are, and
we know how to get there: Equal access to quality education and training,
full funding for Headstart, affordable health care, child care, and
housing, an expanded earned income tax credit, and a higher minimum wage.
And for the working poor in service industry jobs, the right to bargain
collectively is the ticket to full-time employment with full-time benefits.
''Empowerment zones,'' incentives, venture capital funds, and technical
assistance for businesses operating in low-income communities are
important, but they are only a small part of the solution, not the solution
itself.

Substantial new investment in care of our nation's young is vitally
important to reverse the tragic trends of childhood poverty. To deny early
nurturing and educational experiences for millions of children because
their parents are poor is a shameful rejection of the promise of equal
opportunity. By now, we all know the importance of early child development
in determining a child's chances for a successful life. Headstart can make
a difference for poor children by stimulating imagination and laying the
foundations for reading, writing, and working with numbers. But Headstart
is funded to accommodate only four out of 10 eligible children, and Early
Headstart funding covers only 1 percent of eligible toddlers. Therein lies
the problem typical of the president's antipoverty efforts: He needs to
fight much harder for poor children.

Defeating poverty in this country will never be easy, but it's not rocket
science, either. We know what works. The only thing missing is sustained
commitment and leadership. Since the Republican-led majority in Congress
has turned a deaf ear to the cries of the poor, it will require a fierce
willingness by the president and congressional Democrats to really fight
for a sufficient share of federal effort - budgets, in short - that will
make a difference in the lives of the poor and the powerless.

Our budgets must be connected to the words we speak. Otherwise, we risk
being accused of engaging in an antipoverty politics that is more symbol
than substance.

[Paul Wellstone, a Democrat, is a US senator from Minnesota.]

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