Ben Downing: Addressing Poverty

Apr 3, 2018

Earlier this year I commented here that policymakers were missing the mark if they did not turn their focus to poverty. Which begs the question, if they did focus on poverty, what should they do about it?

First, patching the holes in our social safety net would significantly reduce poverty. Many steps fall into this category, but the most obvious would be providing universal access to paid family leave. It’s wrong that anyone would have to choose between caring for a loved one - new born, chronically ill, or at the end of life - and keeping their job. It’s especially wrong that the working poor, who can afford to lose their job or income least, are less likely to have these benefits provided to them through their employers than their wealthier counterparts. No one should be poor because they chose to be with a loved one at their time of need.  

Second, states should take steps to increase the value of work. Boosting the minimum wage & expanding the earned income tax credit are simple steps that would lift workers out of poverty, give them more money to spend in the economy, and reduce their need for public assistance. According to the Mass Budget & Policy Center, 63 percent of non-disabled adults living in poverty worked at least part time in the previous year. 18 percent of them worked full time. Doubling the EITC would cost $220 million, while helping nearly 400,000 Massachusetts residents get further away from poverty. That cost is not insignificant, but it seems a far wiser expenditure than continuing to cut the state income tax which disproportionately benefits the wealthiest and exacerbates inequality.

Third, states should invest in every level of education to help every kid, from every zip code make the most of their God given talents. Massachusetts often touts being the first in the nation in K-12 education. That’s laudable, but student achievement varies widely across the state, especially when comparing affluent and poor communities. One way to close that gap is investing in early education.  All the data on early education shows us that the earlier the investment is made in quality education, the bigger the impact it will have across a child’s life. Yet only 60 percent of 3 and 4-year-olds are in a pre-school program and the quality of those programs vary wildly.  Along with investing in kids early everyone needs to know they can afford to continue their education if they want to.  Between 2001 and 2016, Massachusetts increased tuition and fees at its public universities more than almost any other state. The result of this increase? Average student debt from public higher education increasing more in MA than in 49 other states. Lifelong education should be universal, high quality and accessible to all, without decades of debt to follow.

There are plenty of ways to reduce poverty. Those listed here and many others. We are fooling ourselves if we dance around the issue and we are lying to ourselves if we think it cannot be addressed. We can eliminate poverty if we see it for what is - a giant waste of potential. If we want our communities to be all they can and should be, we cannot afford to write off 15 percent of the population nationally, and much more in countless communities - urban and rural, black, brown and white, young and old. Poverty should not just be our focus because it’s connected to all our problems, it should be our focus because it’s connected to all our possibilities.

Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

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