Upward mobility need not wait

This month we paused to reflect on the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty.  That declaration fueled tremendous support for legislation that fundamentally changed the way America works on behalf of its citizens.

We also honored the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. The power of his words inspired us to work toward equality for all.

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On Tuesday night we heard President Obama deliver his State of the Union address declaring that, “Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation must be to restore that promise.” 

Like the precedents of LBJ and MLK, it is imperative that his words serve as a wake-up call to inspire action in Washington and beyond.  While the challenges we face as a nation are great, there are things we can do with the tools we already have available to fight poverty, bolster economic mobility and make our country stronger. 

Each year we leave billions of dollars of unclaimed benefits on the table. This money lies beneath layers of bureaucracy.  It requires a Herculean effort even to identify a fraction of the resources. 

Studies have shown that participation rates in these programs vary wildly.  Even in a program as critical as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps)only 75 percent of eligible Americans received assistance in 2012.  In other words, millions of eligible Americans end up not using the benefits and services that are there to help stave off poverty and focus on economic opportunity as opposed to subsistence. We must show our elected representatives the value of these benefits and the ability they have to make our economy stronger.

For too long these programs have been the fodder of partisan debate.  The truth is that these should be the very programs that bring both sides together.

These programs are more important than ever: real wages for all but the elite in American society have been stagnant for three decades.

Students comprise a substantial number of Americans who need these benefits, but simply don’t know how to access them. Today’s benefits can sustain a new generation through the process of education and (re)investment in high-skills, high-tech sectors.  So, in a very real sense, they hold the key to the long-term stability and success of our society.

The outcomes of even limited efforts to increase access speak for themselves. For example, the average community college student we’ve worked with is eligible to draw down an additional $5,400 in benefits or a total of nearly $195 million, making it more likely they will graduate and enter the job force.

The same is true for veterans and their families, many of whom are eligible for critical benefits.  Surely we owe the men and women who fought for our country a decent chance to reintegrate into civilian life in a troubled economy. 

As the president said, "America does not stand still. And neither will I." Neither should we. It is up to us to harness the reality that change can begin today.

Here are just a few things we can do right now: First, we need to make sure people know that these programs exist. Second, we must pressure our government to streamline the process of accessing these programs. Third, we must be ready to fight to ensure the funding for these critical benefits does not fall victim to politics.

So let’s take what we heard on Tuesday night and the legacy of action we celebrated earlier this month and get to work.

Bond is chairman emeritus of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and sits on Single Stop USA’s Advisory Committee. Mason is CEO and co-founder of Single Stop USA, an anti-poverty non-profit that draws on the resources of the existing social safety net. http://www.singlestopusa.org