Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a "War on Poverty," and during the 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama made it clear that the "War on Poverty" is far from over. Highlighting the struggles millions of Americans face daily, the president confirmed his commitment to ending income inequality and strengthening opportunity for all Americans.
In the 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama said he's seeking across-the-board reform of America's training programs to "train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now. That means more on-the-job training, and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life."
At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), we commend the president's efforts to highlight the struggles of low-income families before the entire nation. The State of the Union is a rare opportunity for the nation to reflect on our progress and how to move forward. This is especially critical, as we look beyond the challenges of fluctuating monthly job reports and miniscule dents in the child poverty rate and instead, build the collective will to address the structural inequities that have perpetuated the cycle of poverty for the past 50 years.
The face of poverty is drastically different than it was five decades ago. It is far less widespread and more concentrated among children and in communities of color. For years, policymakers have neglected to target investments in communities that needed it most and where investments could make real, lasting impacts.
History shows that President Johnson's push to increase the minimum wage almost instantly helped pull families back from the brink of poverty and economic ruin. And federal investments in early childhood education have contributed toward increasing high school and college graduation rates. But instead of building on these positive signs of impact, some policymakers have repeatedly attempted to scale back these effective investments.
Fifty years later, we know that education and economic stability are inextricably linked. Study after study shows that educational success and advancement renders positive returns on investment over the life of an individual and brings success within reach of the whole family. We know that early learning and early reading are undisputed contributors to a successful education, which is why WKKF places a sizable investment each year in community-based programs that expand access to early learning for children who need the most help to break the generational curse of poverty - those who face barriers based on race or family income. One such effort is the foundation's cohort of grantees in priority place Mississippi that are working to support racial healing and eliminate barriers to opportunity, such as through early childhood education, for young males of color, another topic the president discussed.
A wealth of economic research shows that smart investments in early childhood education starting at birth are proven to fight poverty by delivering strong academic, social and economic outcomes not just for children, but for their families and communities where they live. Study after study shows that children who experience high-quality early education are 50 percent less likely to require special education, 29 percent more likely to graduate from high school and are more likely to have a meaningful career, earning a 33 percent higher average salary.
But up until the most recent federal budget agreement, these proven investments remained stagnant and were even cut during sequestration.
For far too long, some political leaders have looked at education and economic inequality as two disconnected factors that keep children and families from achieving the elusive American dream. And yes, wage stagnation and a lack of economic stability for low-wage workers has certainly made it nearly impossible for families to climb the ladder of economic mobility. In the U.S. today, more than 32 million children currently live in low-income households. Statistically, they are far more likely to drop out of school and limit their own earnings potential -- adding another generation to the cycle of poverty.
This is why President Obama's commitment to increasing the minimum wage, expanding apprenticeships and workforce skills development and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) are especially critical. If we want to drastically reduce poverty and give children and families alike a fair shot at success now and in the future, we must address education and economic inequality simultaneously.