We need structural reforms to fight poverty

The thing about being poor in America is that it is easy for people to demonize you. The message we send over and over again to those who are struggling is, "It's your fault if you're poor." The water crisis in Detroit is just one example of how the struggle for economic security is demonized. Your water is being shut off? Well, you should have paid your bill. When in reality, water costs in Detroit have increased more than 120 percent over the last decade. Not being able to afford the water bill is not an issue of personal responsibility; it is a symbol of a much larger systematic shift that makes being poor expensive and permanent.

The case of South Carolina mom Debra Harrell shows exactly how hard it is to make ends meet and how little our social and political systems help struggling families. Harrell worked at McDonald's and couldn’t afford day care on her wages, so she sent her 9-year-old daughter to play in a nearby park. Harrell was arrested and charged for abandoning her child, even though there were at least 40 other children at the park and her daughter had a cellphone, according to media reports. As a result of the arrest, Harrell temporarily lost custody of her daughter and spent time in jail. In terms of personal responsibility, Harrell did everything she was "supposed to": She had a job, she was trying to take care of her child; yet she still ended up arrested.

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To see how the poor are viewed, one doesn't have to look any farther than Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) latest anti-poverty plan. While there are some good points, like reforming programs and policies that may discourage higher earnings, the majority of the plan is based on tired stereotypes of poverty. As Annie Lowrey highlighted in New York magazine, the Ryan plan requires poor people to answer for their poverty and "threatens to punish the poorest and most unstable families for their poverty and instability." This type of thinking puts the burden of poverty on those who are poor. Again, the message is it is individual irresponsibility, not structural inequity, that causes poverty.

Individual responsibility would seem to dictate that Detroit's Palmer Park Golf Club pay their outstanding $200,000 water bill, and Joe Louis Arena and Ford Field should also pay their outstanding debts that total tens of thousands of dollars. Yet, their water supplies are not being turned off, unlike residents'. It's much easier to direct moral judgment to people who have been categorically written off. Doing so refocuses the debate on people who are poor and away from systematic failure.

If the problem is people who are poor, then we can continue believing in the American Dream where everyone who works hard makes it. If you don't make it, you didn't work hard enough. If, however, the problem is systemic, then it begins to question the very root of America and the continued insistence that ours is a blindly meritocratic society. What would happen to the ideal of America if the American Dream were actually a nightmare for most people?

Structural reforms would begin to shrink our record levels of inequality and make our economy stronger. Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and ensuring that it grows every year to keep up with inflation by linking it to the consumer price index would help keep low-wage workers out of poverty. Making child care free, or at the very least low-cost, would help working mothers like Debra Harrell. Supporting working mothers is a public investment worth making that saves money in the long run. Providing these supports up front ensures that mothers can earn steady wages, children receive needed care, and when they can make ends meet, their dependence on safety-net programs decreases. These types of work supports could be funded by reforming our tax code so companies can't store $2 trillion in profits offshore and instead would pay their fair share and provide much-needed revenue.

Rethinking our structures and challenging the way they function won't make us weak. On the contrary, it would highlight the best parts of the experiment we call America.

Cha, J.D., Ph.D., is an associate director at PolicyLink and an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School. She is a participant of The OpEd Project Global Policy Solutions Greenhouse.