Ending poverty in America has always been a passionate concern of mine, and doing so is an ethical obligation of my Jewish religious tradition. I began my career as a social worker supporting low-income women of color in the South Bronx and then worked on child welfare issues in rural Oklahoma. Years later, as a government official in New York City, reducing poverty and fighting racism were always at the top of my to-do list. These commitments were bolstered by my late colleague, Michael Harrington, who, in 1962, published The Other America, an indelibly influential book that shed light on the extent of poverty in the U.S. Fifty years later, in the richest country in the world, more than 46 million Americans live in homes below the poverty line. We clearly still have lots to learn and do.
Now, I am the leader of American Jewish World Service, an international development and human rights organization that works to end poverty and advance human rights in the developing world. For the past 14 years, I've worked with grassroots activists in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, who have taught me vital lessons about rooting out poverty. Without exception, our partners in the developing world -- where 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.15 a day -- remind me what we need to do to end poverty and build healthy, safe and economically independent communities anywhere in the world, including the U.S.:
1) Invest in and empower women and girls. First and foremost, women everywhere bear the brunt of poverty, earn less, own less, have less access to health care, enjoy fewer rights, and are held back by outmoded thinking and traditions. The U.S. is no exception. In 2009, more than 16.4 million American women lived below the poverty line.
Investing in women is the key to ending poverty and building a just future. Empowered girls grow up to be healthy, educated and financially stable women who anchor their communities. A 2010 World Bank Study demonstrated that when women earn an income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent reinvestment for men. Furthermore, women invest smartly, spending their income on nutritious foods, school fees and health care for children. An extra year of primary school raises a girl's lifetime wages by 10 to 20 percent, and an extra year of secondary school raises her wages by 15 to 20 percent.
Women, given half a chance, organize to make meaningful social change as well. For example, in Liberia, women were the pioneers of a movement to end a 14-year civil war that exacerbated poverty and unemployment. On a trip to Liberia last June, I was inspired to learn that these same women taught countless young people -- especially girls -- about the importance of education and training as antidotes to poverty. Liberian women's organizations also play a key role in rebuilding Liberia's workforce. An organization called Imani House, Inc. promotes women's empowerment through adult literacy programs, and the Liberian Rural Women's Association offers trainings to help Liberian women become farmers and local business owners to support themselves and their families.
2) Provide necessary resources for low-income people, so they can shape their own future. In the developing world, those who fight poverty focus sharply on protecting the rights to land and water. These rights are often ignored and leave poor people without the basics for building a secure life. Land and water rights may not make immediate sense in the U.S., but they are equivalent to the right to have a roof over one's head and access to food, education, and health care. When we make poor people move in and out of shelters, deny them basic Medicaid benefits, fail to invest in their neighborhood schools, it is as if we have denied them ownership of the land they farm. Without the basics, poor Americans, like poor people in the developing world, won't be able to take control of their lives and provide for those they love.
Activists in Kenya are taking control of their lives in a bold way by safeguarding Lake Turkana, a vital resource for rural, indigenous communities to access clean water and grow food. Long marginalized, Lake Turkana's indigenous communities have Kenya's highest rates of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy. Unfortunately, the government of neighboring Ethiopia began constructing a dam along the Omo River, which provides 90 percent of Lake Turkana's water. When a Kenyan activist named Ikal Angelei learned about the construction of the dam, she was outraged that no effort had been made to consult with the communities that would be directly affected. So, she successfully mobilized opposition. We need to recognize the parallel efforts of poor people in America to demand much-needed changes in our laws.
3) Ensure human rights to help people help themselves. Our grassroots partners in the developing world consistently make the case that giving people the resources they need is not enough. To create lasting change, we must ensure that marginalized people have the skills to advocate for themselves and build just societies. An organization in India called Kislay, which promotes the rights of urban communities in the slums of New Delhi, is doing this work brilliantly. Kislay uses participatory theatre to teach Delhi slum dwellers how to advocate for equitable food and housing, and how to be their own agents of social and economic change.
I am not in the business of creating domestic policy planks for the U.S., but I firmly believe that we can strengthen our efforts to end poverty at home by taking some tips from leaders in the developing world. People in Liberia, Kenya and India have shown that we must empower women and girls, enable marginalized people to advocate for themselves, and promote human rights and justice for all. To me, this combination is as American as apple pie.
Ruth Messinger is the president of American Jewish World Service.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.
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