What took so long to address poverty?

Angela Glover Blackwell

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Tess Vigeland: The war in Iraq, health care, the environment, they're already big on the agenda as we move into presidential election season. But some Democrats are shining a light on another topic: poverty.

John Edwards wrapped up his tour of impoverished communities this week. And Barack Obama unveiled his plan to combat urban poverty. Commentator Angela Glover Blackwell says the attention is valuable, but politicians still have a long way to go.


Angela Glover Blackwell: Finally, a couple of presidential candidates are talking about poverty, and the American people are wondering what took them so long.

More than three-quarters of all Americans support housing, minimum wage, child care and tax policies that reduce poverty, according to a recent Pew report. Politicians would kill for approval ratings that high.

But for years, the constant chase for middle-class votes has blinded politicians. They've ignored growing poverty in America. Since President Bush entered the White House, 5 million more people have fallen into poverty. One in eight Americans now lives below the poverty line. One in eight.

But the face of poverty is changing. For the first time, more poor people live in suburbs than cities.

Every day, more Americans realize that poverty affects their neighbors, their co-workers, their children's classmates. Remember "suburban soccer moms," those much-desired swing voters in the 2000 election? Well, many of them are now struggling to make the payments on their minivans and driving to low-paying jobs, not the country club.

On top of the 37 million Americans living in poverty, another 50 million are one illness, one lay-off, one stroke of bad luck away from becoming poor.

Staying out of poverty worries a huge segment of the population. Yet, experts say that poverty can be nearly eliminated in a generation. How?

Keep boosting the minimum wage, provide better childcare assistance, and expand the child and earned income-tax credits. Provide more affordable housing in neighborhoods with good schools and opportunity.

And build stronger public transit systems that connect low-income workers to job centers. Good paying jobs and basic economic security will allow poor people to save and invest — the most reliable long-term tickets out of poverty.

The politicians seem to be waiting until more of the would-be middle class slips into poverty to act. But the American people are more than willing to take this issue on now. The politicians need to catch up, and then lead the way.

Vigeland: Angela Glover Blackwell is founder and CEO of PolicyLink.

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