09/05/2012 09:07 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Dismantling the Poverty Trap

Coauthored by Linetta J. Gilbert and Claire Gaudiani.

The United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the world -- a vibrant hub of medical, scientific, social and economic development... a leader in technological innovation. How can we tolerate the fact that more than 20.5 million Americans live on less than $11,000 a year for a family of four -- half of the federally defined poverty level? That means living on just $7.55 a day. What's worse is that the quality of life of these poorest Americans resembles that of people in the world's least developed countries.

Americans value fairness. Yet 20.5 million Americans are born into and ensnared in a poverty trap, never getting a fair break. What has happened to America's promise that everyone get access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Those caught in the poverty trap have rates of infant and maternal mortality that are nearly twice as high as those of wealthy Americans. Their lifespan is five years shorter than that of wealthy Americans. Those with less than 12 years of education have a 2.5 times higher death rate than those with even one year of college education.

Severe poverty also has deadly social consequences. Poor families send their children to kindergarten with lethal first-language deficits and stunted social and emotional development. These deficiencies compound to make it highly unlikely that these children will be able to read by age nine. Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT research shows that" 85 percent of low-income students who attend high-poverty schools... [fail] to reach a "proficient" grade level in reading. Reading proficiently by the end of third grade is a crucial marker in a child's educational development." Failure to read by nine is linked closely to elevated high school dropout rates and suppresses short- and long-term individual learning and earning potential.

If current trends continue, 6.6 million low-income children aged 8 and younger will be at increased risk of failing to graduate from high school on time. High school dropouts living in low-income families had only 38 percent likelihood of being employed in 2008, even before the recession had really set in.

Furthermore, a recent study by the US Census Bureau reports that year after year, high school dropouts earn, on average, nearly 40 percent less than graduates. Over a lifetime, dropouts earn $260,000 less than high school graduates, resulting in an annual $320 billion loss in lifetime earning potential in the US.

The problem is a national one, but it's particularly concentrated in some communities. More than 66 percent of youth in Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Detroit drop out of high school. Seventy-five percent of state prison inmates and 59 percent of federal prison inmates are high school dropouts. How can we, as a country, as communities, and as individuals continue to afford this loss, human and financial? We can't. We shouldn't.

All of this could change, if the rest of us wanted it to. Even small improvements in high school graduation rates would have huge positive ripple effects. A 1 percent increase in graduation rates could save approximately $1.4 billion in incarceration costs each year. If high schools and colleges in America were to increase the graduation rates of Hispanic, African American, and Native American students to the levels of white students by 2020, the potential increase in personal income would add more than $310 billion to the U.S. economy.

Like each of the other poverty trap triggers, incarceration has terrible consequences for the health, education, and employment of those caught in the trap. High school dropouts from the ages of 16 to 24 were 63 times more likely to be institutionalized (either in prisons or more rarely, in mental institutions or hospitals) than four-year college graduates. As Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones said in a 2006 speech in Chicago: "Dropping out of high school is an apprenticeship for prison."

Any one of these and the many other poverty trap triggers rob people of the freedom to make healthy choices. They produce a lifetime of deprivation, struggle, and hopelessness. The only way to disable the trap and free Americans from poverty is to deactivate the crippling poverty trap triggers that ensnare individuals, families, and whole communities.

It is simply not enough to bring water and food to a person stuck in a grizzly bear trap. The person slowly bleeds to death if no efforts are made to break the trap and release its prey. Sadly, a lot of help to the poor is well meaning, but is actually little more than a "hospice" approach. Solutions to poverty must include alleviating daily pain while pursuing robust measures to enable the poor to escape the trap, and get free to build healthy lives.

We Americans should be determined for everyone to have the hope and opportunity that each of us has. This is the very essence of equality, our nation's foundational principle.

There are no silver bullets to end a complex, multi-faceted, and persistent problem like poverty. But there are concrete ways that each American who has enjoyed access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, could work alongside America's poorest to dismantle the poverty trap that choke the whole country, neighborhood by neighborhood.

We are a nation built on the principle that everyone should have a fair chance in life. Our history is full of stories of people working together to build lives and communities. Twenty million of America's poorest could make a big contribution to strengthening this country -- the rest of us need to decide that fairness and equal opportunity matter.

We need to develop a real understanding of poverty and why it has been so difficult to resolve. And we need to apply this knowledge and work with communities to release those caught in the poverty trap and give them access to the great opportunities that this nation has offered the rest of us. Our first step should be to recognize that this work is truly our own work, that began with the call embedded in the last words of our Declaration of Independence: "And for the support of this Declaration... we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor."

Linetta J. Gilbert and Claire Gaudiani are co-leaders of The Declaration Initiative, an effort that seeks to dismantle the destructive poverty trap that ensnares more than 20.5 million Americans -- one day at a time. THE GOAL IS ALL MEN CREATED EQUAL by the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 2026.

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.