14 Oct 2009
by Colin Greer
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Up From Poverty

No one says, they want people to be poor, but plenty say, ‘we don’t want to spend public money on social programs to help the poor’. The result is that the poor continue to get poorer and right-wing politician and fearful liberals hold on even tighter to their wallets.

The newest economic inequality data is horrifying. The Associated Press recently released an article titled, “US income gap widens as poor take hit in recession”. The article goes on to say how middle-income and poor families have been hit the hardest, widening the economic gap between the richest and poorest Americans.

The problem of poverty is not only about policy, resources and pragmatic invention. It is about challenging deep-seated conventions that allow economic self-interest to resonate more powerfully than moral concerns.

At the level of society, our reflex toward compassion, and collaboration with self-interest are constantly undermined.

Social policy can push our economic choices in the direction of higher principle, but clearly that will not be enough. Debates in recent months have demonstrated that the economy continues to be impoverished by the pseudo-moral prominence of the market place, which as usual allows for corruption, distortion, and short-term, profit-generating inventions.

To abolish poverty will require both universal and particular programs for some time. But for at least 40 years we have been building a strong body of experience for advancing effective anti-poverty programs in the United States. Programs of the 1960s and 1970s, like the Career Ladder Program and the New Careers Program, combined direct aid to individual students and to establishing economic stability in communities through public investment in individual opportunity. Paraprofessionals, drawn from the local population, served both to connect public institutions to community life and provide career ladders for individuals.

New World Foundation’s Community Opportunity Initiatives Network (COIN) tries to apply lessons from these programs and aims toward a version of national service, which advances individual skills on a wide range of options built on community needs as well as college demands. Linked to community-based organizations (CBOs) individuals can earn free college admission and serve their communities both during and after college.

The challenge is that programs of this scale require large public financing, which quickly earn the assault of right-wing politicians and policy makers and scare liberal colleagues.

But it shouldn’t have to.

Economies with strong public spending can and do thrive. Robust public sector and public spending works well in societies from Israel to Scandinavia, and in other societies, where growth remains solid and unemployment low. In such societies, about 65% of GDP is funneled into social programs. In the United States, where “free market” ideology assaults public spending, 35% of GDP goes to social spending.

It’s not that we spend nothing, it’s that we don’t spend enough.

How we spend and where the money comes from is a matter of political will and of bringing new imagination to revenue generation for the public good, something I will talk about in my next few posts.

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