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Resetting the Poverty Debate: Renewing Our Commitment to Shared Prosperity

SOURCE: AP/Jose Luis Magana

It’s time to hit the reset button on our fiscal debate and reinvest in what we know will help us cut poverty in half and grow our country’s middle class.

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Read the full report (CAP Action)

In 2012, the official poverty rate in the United States was 15 percent, statistically unchanged from 2011. Nearly one in six people, or 46.5 million Americans, lived below the official federal poverty line—$23,492 per year for a family of four. Each year, we track our progress toward our goal of cutting poverty in half in 10 years by publishing our annual “Half in Ten” report that examines 21 different indicators of economic security and opportunity. It helps us better understand where we are improving the situation for America’s struggling families and where we need to do a better job. As with last year’s report, the overall poverty rate did not worsen compared to the years following the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009.

But as America’s economy continues on its slow and steady recovery, too many families are not sharing in the nation’s current economic growth, and we still have to achieve significant progress if we are to meet our goal.

This year carries with it very special meaning as we examine our progress. Fifty years ago, the nation marked two milestone events—the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963 and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty just a few months later, in January 1964. It is no coincidence that these two pivotal events intersected at this point in our nation’s history. Both were important historical moments that represented a multiclass, multiethnic, multiracial, and cross-generational movement—moments that resulted in a public and political commitment to cut poverty and strengthen economic and social justice.

These landmark events were accompanied by a full-employment economy and rising incomes across all parts of the income distribution. A commitment to tackling poverty paired with the landmark civil rights legislation that followed the March on Washington provided new and unprecedented opportunities for people of color, women, and other previously marginalized groups to begin sharing in the gains of our economic growth. Our national commitment also led to investments in a sound set of federal policies that supported families when they struggled and helped them get back on their feet. The result: Our nation cut poverty nearly in half—43 percent—between 1964 and 1973, to a historic low of 11.1 percent. We know we can cut poverty in half because we have done it before; we know how to do it, and we can do it again.

But our economy and our demographics have changed considerably over the past 50 years. Most importantly, income inequality is at its highest level since the 1920s, and it has been getting worse even as our economy grows after the Great Recession. This is a far cry from the era of broadly shared growth and prosperity in the decades immediately after World War II. On the demographic front, by the early 2040s, communities of color are projected to be the majority of the population. Women are now primary and co-income earners in two-thirds of our nation’s families. But communities of color, women, and children now face troubling and disproportionate rates of poverty.

With this changed economy as our backdrop, it is important to consider both what the key findings from this year’s report say about the choices our country has made in recent years and what we need to do moving forward to get back on track and invest the way we did in the decades following World War II—but with a 21st century approach that acknowledges our transformed demographic landscape and economy. It’s time to once again enact policies that pursue a full-employment economy with widely shared growth and a sound set of federal programs that support families who continue to struggle with rising family costs, stagnant wages, and other challenges.

Read the full report (CAP Action)

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
202.478.6331 or apreiss@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org