Five issues to keep poverty on the agenda in 2016

At the current rate of entry into the race, campaign 2016 feels like a pointillist picture taking shape.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to get a handle on the key themes this early.  If history is a guide, however, poverty in America won’t be one of them.

The campaign probably will talk “opportunity,” and “inequality.”  The more sophisticated folks may even talk “mobility,” and successfully distinguish it from the other two. The emphasis will be on the middle class, though, not low-income Americans.

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Poverty affects who we are as a country.  It affects our economy, our criminal justice system, our educational investments and the future of our workforce.  Our response to it, or lack thereof, is an expression of our national values.

We can force poverty into the discussion, however.  A national coalition of voters and anti-poverty organizations should pick a handful of proxy issues and consistently pressure candidates to address them specifically as they pertain to poverty – in living rooms, at speeches, through community town halls, and in the debates.  Granted, the problem is massively complex, but there are representative topics that would drive change for those in poverty, while offering “twofers” for the middle class.

I humbly nominate the following “poverty proxies” for 2016.

From among the usual topics, I propose the minimum wage, access to affordable health care insurance and adult basic education. With even Wal-Mart recognizing that the current minimum wage is a non-starter for families living on it long term, no candidate can be serious about leading our economy without a serious discussion of how to raise the minimum wage and support the small employers who pay it. 

Ditto affordable health insurance.  Those leaving poverty know that sickness is a sure bet for being pulled back in without health insurance.  Paid time off, child care support and access to health care providers also help stabilize families leaving poverty, but they don’t make my list.  The debate is going to rage over Obamacare regardless; let’s pressure candidates to focus on a population that desperately needs coverage.

As for adult basic education, “two generations” matter.  Yes, kids and education matter, but that subject will get plenty of coverage all on its own.  Grown-ups matter, too, and high school dropouts don’t drop off the face of the earth.  A focus on adult education allows us to pressure candidates regarding how they will help people in the workforce now to participate and prosper.  At the same time, this emphasis lets us look at how candidates will think about English language education – often a core component of adult basic ed.  With the immigration debate taking on significance that has little to do with poverty, English language for adult learners becomes another lens by which we can analyze how the candidates will support low-income immigrants.

To these three standard policy topics I would add two “unusual” suspects – asset building and social connections. Both represent the best of innovation and impact in anti-poverty work on the ground.  In addition, data over the last year underscore their centrality to fighting poverty.

Asset building means people’s ability to save and obtain long-term assets. You can’t spend your way out of poverty; you have to save.  We have a lot of making up to do. Historic restrictions on asset development coupled with a lack of sufficient public policy focus has led to a massive racial wealth gap and a no-man’s land of asset supports for low-income families.  Candidates who focus on asset building for the truly low-income demonstrate a serious understanding of what it takes for everyone to rise. 

As for social capital, Harvard guru Robert Putnam just produced a book outlining the impact of social capital on opportunity and prosperity.  Plus, programs investing in development and use of social capital demonstrate real impact on poverty.  It will be harder to identify social capital “planks” in candidate platforms. Two examples, however, could be investments in civic engagement or promotion of cohort-based approaches to economic development.  Cutting edge candidates will embrace the role of social capital in change for low-income communities.  Social capital investment can also become part of the solution set for our nation’s current racial tensions.

This 2016 “poverty proxy” list doesn’t cover everything.  These issues, however, are important right now, have currency for both poverty and the middle class, and won’t already be heavily represented elsewhere.  Placing regular pressure on the candidates about these five issues keeps poverty on the map in 2016, and could create better outcomes overall.

Dearing is an associate professor at Boston College School of Social Work.  She is the former CEO of multiple anti-poverty organizations.

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