Conquering Poverty with Politicos or Pop Stars?

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET

This week, America's most watched pop culture phenomenon tried to make confronting poverty sexy.

American Idol made a valiant effort to use the influence of America's highest rated program and a cast of entertainment stars to turn water cooler discussions from Sanjaya's hairdo to poverty in America and "giving what you can" to charity. The show may have just touched the surface but such effort by a high powered media enterprise is mildly impressive.

Not surprisingly, the program and its corporate sponsors glazed over what its viewers could collectively do to force political solutions making our government recognize its moral responsibility to those struggling economically among us. The show did perpetuate the neo-liberal idea that economic justice is a humanitarian action to be left to the sphere of charity: You give "what you can." Low-income peoples' health and opportunities depends on what donors are willing to contribute, their basic human rights are of little consequence.

Nineteen months after Hurricane Katrina and our nation still hasn't had a legitimate debate on what to do about social and economic rights abuses in our midst: extreme poverty and racial inequality. Words from the President Bush and others for bold plans in 2005 yielded no action even after witnessing the horrors faced in New Orleans' Ninth Ward. Washington, for the most part, continues to play with the issue at the margins: tax cuts, small business loans, minor health initiatives. All the while 37 million continued to live in poverty - many of them children - with over 90 million Americans having trouble just making ends meet.

Almost two years later, despite the victories of progressives nationally in an election in 2006 that arguably gave the Congress a progressive economic mandate, all too few Democratic leaders have embraced bold ideas toward ending poverty.

Why haven't Democratic leaders attacked these issues? Too many reason that our two-front "War on Terror" and the need for balanced budgets leave bold action out of reach. Trapped by the American Idol-esqe "give what you can" mentality, human dignity and internationally recognized human rights to such essentials as a place to live, decent work and healthcare get left by the wayside. Anti-poverty provisions are always the first to get cut in a budget crisis because they continue to be viewed as non-essential inside the beltway. Poor people don't have high powered K-Street lobbyist to protect their interests.

Hold that thought.

The Center for American Progress, a respected D.C.-based think tank, unveiled a report by its Taskforce on Poverty, chaired by Peter Edelman, a former aide to Sen. Robert Kennedy, and Angela Blackwell Glover, CEO of Policy Link with the help of national groups like ACORN, Youth Build and the AFL-CIO. They believe the $90 billion plan could cut poverty in half in a decade.

Members of the taskforce were joined Wednesday by two progressive fixtures, Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative Charles Rangel, supporting the Center for American Progress's plan.

The plan boldly offers multifaceted action calling for a minimum wage raise indexed to half the average hourly wage, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, enacting the Employee Free Choice Act, child care assistance to low-income families, 2 million new "opportunity" housing vouchers, programs connecting disadvantaged and disconnected youth with school and work, and expanding Pell Grants for the college bound. The plan would help former prisoners find employment and reintegrate into their communities, give low-wage workers access to the Unemployment Insurance system, modernize means-tested benefits programs to helps workers and families, reduce the high costs of being poor and lastly expanding and simplify the Saver's Credit to encourage saving for education, homeownership, and retirement.

Are we talking about a new "war on poverty"? Edelman, known for his principled stand stepping down from the Clinton administration over its inequitable reform of welfare, with a quick wit, replied, "We shouldn't be looking to start wars on anything."

The war in Iraq, the figurative 800.-lb gorilla in the room, penetrated even this discussion of poverty.

Edelman defended the 60's era economic programs as a success in cutting poverty rates, despite years of derision from the conservative chorus. Head Start, VISTA, neighborhood health services, and many more programs are still successful 40 years later.

What is different in the American Progress plan?

"[The war on poverty] lacked focus on work and income and an understanding that certain people aren't reached by opportunities," Edelman said. He also noted that today children are more likely to be poor, as opposed to the elderly, who made up the majority of the poor 40 years ago. A recent Center for American Progress report found child poverty cost America $500 billion dollars a year in lost productivity, health care, law enforcement and other cost associated with debilitating poverty. At that price can we afford not to take on this challenge?

This anti-poverty plan was a matter of the common good, Edelman highlighted. "We are all in this together," he said. "This is about building communities."

In his presentation, Sen. Kennedy showed a number of charts mapping how the Bush years have not been good for the poor. "The poorest of the poor are a lot poorer than they were five years ago," said Kennedy. "Long term unemployment is at all-time highs."

Kennedy made a point that the anti-poverty agenda will need to make itself heard if such legislations is to become a reality. He mentioned a time back when he, and Senators Sarbanes and Sasser would come before the Senate everyday to talk for an hour or more about the need to keep Medicare. "That's what we need," said Kennedy

"We are spending 2.5 million a week on Iraq. Until we end the war we can not focus on the most needy. These two moral issues are tied together," Kennedy offered to great applause.

Enter gorilla stage left.

Even an idealist like Sen. Kennedy is beholden to the harsh realities of political math. Despite the House and Senate tipping left in '06, until the troops come home from Iraq, the votes will not add up for spending anywhere in the ballpark of the Center for American Progress's $90 billion a year plan.

In Rangel's mind, Americans need to see poverty and its deprivations through a new light, through the light of human rights.

"Europeans see healthcare as a human right but over here we still see it as a subsidy."

Rangel acknowledged the two wars bust our budgets but before the 800-lb gorilla in the room could take center stage Rep. Rangel offered a strategy to work around it.

He told a story about a time when he was pushing through urban empowerment zones in 2000. He laid out the case to his fellow members on Ways and Means, "Poverty is a threat to national security, under cutting the security of United States...[Anti-poverty legislation] will make America a healthier, more competitive, and better country," he said. "I can't think of anything more patriotic."

When we are talking about life and death in America how is it that opportunity, human suffering and well-being are weighed in the same terms as pork bellies and sugar beets? This is a matter of economic and personal security, as important to millions as any potential attacks or foreign threats.

Hopefully Congress can grab hold of this plan and integrate these ideas into a broader progressive agenda. Progressives can build on the work of mayors like Mike Bloomberg in New York City and Antonio Villaraigosa in L.A. to acknowledge the economic and social rights of Americans.

If the Center for American Progress throws their weight behind these proposals then maybe the poor could finally have found their inside-the-beltway champions. This will be a question of political will and the will of those with the influence to keep on the pressure and not lose sight of the goal despite the various issues of the moment and work with the national progressive, faith-based groups, labor and grassroot organizations.

The report can be found here.