For this month's Readers' Review: “Euphoria,” by Lily King, a novel inspired by events in the life of revolutionary anthropologist Margaret Mead.
A half-century ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty. Since then, the percentage of poor Americans has declined, but more than 46 million still live below the poverty line today. That’s about 15 percent of the population. Whether the war on poverty was a success or failure is the subject of passionate debate and heavily ideological. Many economists say without the social programs implemented to fight poverty, millions more Americans would be poor. Critics argue those programs took away incentives to work and created an underclass dependent on government subsidies. Diane and guests talk about the causes and consequences of poverty in America.
- Vanessa Cardenas vice president, Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress; lead editor of "All-In Nation: An America that Works for All."
- Trip Gabriel national correspondent, The New York Times.
- Ron Haskins senior fellow and co-director of The Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution; a senior adviser to President George W. Bush (2001); staff director, the Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee (1995-2000); author of a forthcoming book about evidence-based social policy in the Obama administration.
- Peter Edelman professor, Georgetown Law Center; author of numerous books, including "So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America."
- Robert Woodson founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise; author, "The Triumphs of Joseph: How Community Healers are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods"
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The percentage of Americans who are poor has declined sharply since President Johnson declared war on poverty 50 years ago. But with more than 46 million Americans living below the poverty line, today much more needs to be done. Joining me in the studio to talk about what causes poverty and what can be done about it, Peter Edelman of Georgetown University Law Center, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, Vanessa Cardenas of the Center for American Progress, and Robert Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.
MS. DIANE REHMThroughout the hour I'll look forward to hearing from you. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a Tweet. Well, it's good to see all of you. Welcome.
MR. RON HASKINSGood to be here.
MS. VANESSA CARDENASThank you.
MR. PETER EDELMANThank you very much.
MR. ROBERT WOODSONYeah.
REHMPeter Edelman, let me start with you. How is poverty defined these days? How poor do you have to be to be known as living in poverty?
EDELMANThat turns out to be a complicated question, Diane. Under the poverty line that we have, just to give you the frame, it's about $19,000 a year for a family of three, $24,000 for a family of four. But then you get into the details. It actually doesn't count some of the income that you get from certain public benefits, but it also low balls the cost of living. So many experts think that the correct number should be higher, just think about what it really costs to live in an American city.
EDELMANThe trends that we've had, in the '60s we cut poverty in half during the time that we're all talking about now, between 1959 and 1973. It got just about that low again at the end of Bill Clinton, down to 11.3 percent then. And now at 15 percent, went up from 31 million people at the beginning of the century to 46 million now. So we've seen a particular increase up as a -- through the Bush years, the second Bush years, and 9 million more of that 15 million during the recession.
REHMRon Haskins, what did the war on poverty actually do? What were the major elements?
HASKINSI think the war on poverty did a lot. It had some problems. I'll mention those in just a minute, but I think it achieved a great deal. So for example, a recent analysis at Columbia using a much better poverty measure that's also approved by the Census Bureau, although it's not an official measure, showed that without government programs, the poverty rate would be about 31 percent with them at 16 percent. So it's a fair thing to say that these programs cut the poverty rate by about half.
HASKINSThe second thing is that the Johnson programs had a dramatic effect on the elderly. So poverty for everybody else has not had good trends. No question that children are -- more children are poor now, a higher percentage than in the past. But for the elderly, poverty just has declined greatly, plus they're covered by Medicare which is a Johnson program, and that relieves them from the concern of facing ill health when they're elderly and don't have earnings. So I think on the whole the war on poverty was a good thing.
HASKINSThe biggest flaw I think was that I think it has had the impact of making a lot of people think that if we spend money and have a lot of programs, that things will be fine. And as you can see by the current poverty rate they're not. There's a lot more that goes into it than giving people benefits. They have to do it for themselves, and that I think is something that where we fall down.
REHMSo overall how effective would you say the war on poverty was?
HASKINSIf we think of the war on poverty compared to we never had the war on poverty, I would say it's effective. I'd give it a seven on a ten point scale, or maybe a six.
REHMAnd what would you give it, Peter Edelman?
EDELMANI would give the totality of what we did something a bit higher than Ron, but there's a lot of things that we haven't done. The fact is that as Ron says, and I want to underscore that, that if we didn't have the policies that we have, we would have twice as many people in poverty. But what do we do about getting people good jobs in this country that has turned into a low wage nation? What do we do about educating our children so that they have a fair chance to get the jobs of the 21st century?
EDELMANWhat do we do about issues in families where things really aren't going so well for some families in our country? These are the kinds of things that you can't attack just with government. You need to have personal responsibility. You need to have work at the community level to make things happen, to have a three dimensional effort.
REHMAnd Bob Woodson, you've been critical of both how liberals and conservatives view the war on poverty.
WOODSONYeah, I would add to Ron that at the time when Kennedy was going through Appalachia you had children also starving to death with large stomachs and that's changed. You don't see children starving to death of elderly people in Miami dying with no food in their stomachs to where they did prior, so I would say. But I would also suggest that what we have done unintended consequences was we have created a commodity out of poor people from the '60s. When the programs were put in place, it transferred government money into services for the poor.
WOODSONAnd so we created a tremendous industry that serves poor people. And this industry ask not which problems are solvable, but which ones are fundable. I was with the West Minister Association in Los Angeles when the Office of Economic Opportunity during the first years really hired a lot of low income, grassroots people. But as soon as they began to agitate against public officials, the Office of Economic changed and said any community outreach worker had to have a bachelor's degree. That one fundamental change shifted the whole poverty program to make it professional driven, and these grassroots people had no role in deciding what's in their interest. And that's where we declined.
REHMAnd, Vanessa Cardenas, what about poverty in America's Latino community?
CARDENASSure. Thank you for having me. It's great to be here. Well, I think for the Latino community the story is definitely a mixed bag. First of all, overall Latinos have a 23 percent poverty rate, but it differs among communities. For example, Cubans have one of the lowest poverty rates when you compare it to the rest of Latinos, mainly because, you know, they're highly educated and obviously they have -- they were legalized when they came to the United States. On the other hand you have Dominicans who tend to be mostly foreign born and they also have very high -- higher poverty rates than Latinos overall. So that's definitely -- there's a difference there.
CARDENASThere's also a difference in geography. So for example states like in the southeast, South Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama and other states like that have a higher poverty rate than Latinos. But overall I would say that the three main factors why Latinos have such high poverty rates is a combination of lack of education, their education attainment lags behind the rest of groups in the United States, but also they have -- they also have -- they concentrate on low skill jobs, and they also earn less. So the combination of those factors make the poverty rates.
CARDENASBut want to say one important thing. I thoroughly agree what some of the speakers here that you need to have a combination of personal responsibility, but also the infrastructure to get you ahead. Someone who came from another country, I can tell you that people back home work really, really hard, but they don't have the infrastructure support to get ahead. They don't have the good schools. They don't have the sort of the economic dynamism. They don't have the college access. And here we are so blessed because definitely there are high poverty rates, but there is opportunity.
CARDENASAnd the question for us moving forward ism, are we willing to invest in infrastructure to ensure that the next generation of Americans really succeed like we did in the past? And that's the question.
REHMAnd what about African-Americans, Bob Woodson?
WOODSONYou have to disaggregate that population too. People of color, particularly blacks, coming from the Caribbean have a higher income and (unintelligible) coming from Africa, coming from other countries than native born blacks here. So you cannot generalize even about the whole class of poor people. You cannot generalize. You've got to disaggregate in order to get a clear understanding of what interventions work.
REHMBut let's talk about African-Americans born in this country, living in this country. Are they better or worse off because of the war on poverty?
WOODSONI think they're worse off. If that were on the case, if you look at the ten years during the depression when there was the overall unemployment rate was 25 percent, it was 40 percent in the black community. But yet our marriage rate, we had a higher marriage rate than white American. So therefore it wasn't discrimination, it wasn't lack of economic opportunity. We had a moral and spiritual cohesiveness that bound us together so that families stayed together. We had -- so that -- but all of that has been destroyed over the past 40 years.
REHMAnd has it been destroyed in part because of the poverty program, or has it been destroyed because of something going on within the community itself?
WOODSONIt was both. I think that one is in response to the other. I think liberal policymakers in the '60s concluded that black American -- it was racist to expect black Americans to conform to (unintelligible) standards of marriage and personal responsibility, even aided by such notable sociologists like Kenneth Clark. And some of the black nationalists bored into this notion that somehow it was racist to expect blacks to remain married, to take care of their children. And then you had social welfare policies that contributed to it as well.
HASKINSDiane, can I -- let me...
REHMI've got to take just a short break, but when we come back, we'll continue this with Bob Woodson, Vanessa Cardenas, Ron Haskins, Peter Edelman and your calls, your questions. Stay with us.
REHMAnd we do have some breaking news that the Supreme Court has voted that states may end affirmative action without violating the Constitution. That was a ruling upholding Michigan's ban on affirmative action. Now, let's go back to our discussion here. Of course the question of affirmative action also enters into this whole issue of poverty in America. And I know, Ron Haskins, you wanted to jump in on something Bob Woodson said.
HASKINSWe -- talking in the abstract about personal responsibility, let me seize on something Bob said about families. We've had such a dramatic change in families in the United States. We just analyzed that the (word?) census data in 1970, '80, '90, 2000, 2010, so four decades. The percentage of 35-year-old women who lived with their husband and children in 1970 was 78 percent.
HASKINSSeventy-eight percent. Today it's 50 percent. Out of wedlock birth rates about 40 percent for the country as a whole, a little bit higher, but 70 percent -- over 70 percent for blacks and 50 percent for Hispanics. So we are creating a family form in which children are four times as likely to live in poverty as they do in married couple families.
REHMBecause they are single parents.
HASKINSBecause they have less money. They have one income. And although there's been a big increase in work among these single mothers, in part because of welfare reform and we really subsidize their income, but nonetheless they're four times as likely to be in poverty.
REHMIs that changing at all? Are we going back to a two-parent family? Do you see any indication of that at all?
EDELMANThe numbers tell us that we are not. Now the high rate of single moms in the African American family is 70 percent now but actually peeked about 40 years ago. And it's been steady. That's a very serious problem. The actual increases over the last 30 years have been in Hispanic families and in white families. And also we should understand that this is something that's happening around the world and it's not confined to low-income people. That doesn't take away from the need to focus on the family, especially the economics, so that mom, if she's the only breadwinner for the house, can earn enough to support that family.
EDELMANI want to say a word about what Bob said about the cup, how much is in it. African American poverty, Diane, went down from 55 percent when we started counting in 1959, is the first numbers we have, down to 31 percent in 1973. We built a black middle class in this country. We should be very, very proud of that.
EDELMANSo we really have two stories here. One of them is the success story, the people who made it, who got jobs of variety of kinds, even though now too much low-wage work as I said. And then what's happened particularly in inner cities where we should be ashamed of ourselves...
REHMSo let me understand something. So up until 1973 this black middle class was being constructed. And then somehow for some reason that black middle class, that married black middle class began to dissolve. Why?
EDELMANWell, that's not such a mystery. From the end of World War II until 1973 our whole country was on a roll. We were tremendously confident. We built the middle class across the board. But African Americans did particularly well during that period. The results of globalization of the flood of low-wage jobs began to show in the 1970s.
EDELMANAnd in the inner city you had a double whammy because families that could get out of those neighborhoods because of the Fair Housing Act, because of the strength of the -- increasing strength of the middle class, too many of them left. And what happens when you get too many poor people all living in the same place is bad. It's happening now in white towns that used to be the steel towns, used to be the -- the Appalachians. Trip Gabriel's on the phone. That's a similar story there. So I think that there's a very important problem here but we need to name it more carefully.
CARDENASBut I think we cannot ignore the plight of men of color, of especially African American men and the way they have been criminalized in the criminal justice system and the school-to-prison pipeline and the impact the war on drugs had on African American men. So I think that's an incredibly important point.
CARDENASThe second point I would say is that we also created -- we have not been able to create wages to pay a living wage for people, which is another change of our economy. But I also want to go back to this question about marriage and family. I think an important point and if there's one thing that we could do to help with that is actually to pay women a living wage, and the same wage that men are earning today.
CARDENASAs we know, women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes for the same type of job. And those numbers are even lower for Latinos and African American women.
REHMBut that doesn't tell us why these families are breaking apart, Bob Woodson.
WOODSONExactly. Yeah, let me just -- I keep hearing this and it just drives me crazy, that -- about the criminalization of black men. In 1954, blacks -- only 90,000 blacks were in prison which meant they were commensurate with their percentage in the population. This has exploded to 900,000 from 1954. So it isn't that racism has gotten bad, or somehow the economy has tanked. It has to do with challenges within that community that must be addressed. And we cannot continue to associate that with somehow factors that are external. We've got to confront enemy within each of these groups as a mean of getting us out.
WOODSONBut the other question is, if all of those economic factors were tell me why didn't we have the disintegration of the family during the Depression in the black family? Why didn't we have it if economic factors -- and you say, why did we not have this tremendous decline? Why is it in the '30s -- the 1930s and '40s blacks were not afraid of their -- grandparents were not afraid of their grandchildren. That social breakdown -- so the -- so I would like to pose this to my colleagues.
EDELMANWell, I can tell you, and Bob, you know this. I mean, you've lived it. In those inner city black neighborhoods, I've heard it from so many people. I remember Leon Higginbotham, the late great judge said, when I was out there doing something bad when I was a kid, Mrs. Johnson would see me out there and she'd say, you go home. I'm going to tell your mama.
EDELMANOkay. So this is about community. And the -- this is -- we spend a lot of time talking about where this deterioration took place. There are -- there's a both and. We tend to have these conversations as though it's this or that, it's structural or it's all your fault.
EDELMANCome on. We can both talk about mass incarceration, which was a policy state after state after state. And we can talk about things that happened in families where we need to do some work. And we do need to talk about fatherhood. These things are all important.
HASKINSCan I make one quick point about this?
HASKINSThe obvious fact here, there's no denying numbers, is that so many children, especially young boys, are being reared without a father. We've done a huge experiment in the country, 70 percent of black kids are born outside of marriage. It's very difficult to maintain contact with their father.
HASKINSThe lack of a male presence in a child-rearing environment is a crisis. And that, to a large extent, is why these kids grow up and have so many problems, drop out of school, get arrested, go to jail and so forth. So we have got to figure out a way to get two-parent families back in style in the inner city and in the rest of the country.
REHMAll right. And joining us now by phone from New York City, Trip Gabriel. He's national correspondent for the New York Times. Hi there, Trip. Thanks for joining us.
MR. TRIP GABRIELHi, Diane. It's good to be here.
REHMI know you recently spent time in McDowell County, W.V. reporting there on rural poverty. What can you tell us about rural poverty and how that differs from what we see here in the cities?
GABRIELWell, in terms of distribution of poverty in the United States, most poor people -- or let me put it another way, rural areas have a far wider distribution of people in poverty. There's about 300 counties that are persistently poor, a federal government measure that their poverty rate is about 20 percent over three decades. And the vast majority, about 85 percent of those counties, are in rural areas.
GABRIELAppalachia is, you know, kind of an iconic area for poverty. This is the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty that President Johnson declared much of that -- much of what he was inspired by was Appalachian want. And he traveled there in 1964, almost 50 years ago this month, to publicize the poverty. And some things have gotten better, as other guests have pointed out.
GABRIELIn McDowell County which is in southern West Virginia, the poorest in the state, poverty rate declined for 50 percent in 1960 to 36 percent a decade later and even lower by 1980. And then it turned around in the decade of the 1980s for various reasons. And things are pretty tough there.
REHMCan you give us a sense of actually what you saw there in McDowell County?
GABRIELIt's really hard to describe to most Americans who have not spent time in parts of our country like this. And there are other regions, you know, in the Deep South and on Indian reservations in the American west, but it looks so different in every regard from much of the country, including inner cities. My description to folks who haven't been there is it's -- you can picture a rural Detroit. There's been so much abandonment of housing and businesses that are closed. And very little seems to have been, you know, put into any kind of infrastructure for decades.
GABRIELIt's just a depressing looking place and it's a very mountainous region. There's not a single four-lane road in all of McDowell County. There are no recreational facilities. Very little, you know -- very little would look different than if you had been there in 1960.
REHMAnd what about schools?
GABRIELYou know, schools -- even in McDowell, as they are everywhere in the country, I think are -- you know, they're a bright spot in relative terms. This is where -- you know, this is the perhaps the only ladder of advancement. You know, the school system is deeply troubled. It was taken over by the state for a decade because of local mismanagement. Test scores aren't great. Close to 100 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches because of their low income. But dropout rate is high but it's not as high -- it's not any higher than in many inner city high schools.
REHMI'm sure people there, as they are everywhere, are working very hard to improve things but what did you see that was most hopeful?
GABRIELWell, I spent some time with the principal of a school in a community called War, which is beset with all kinds of troubles. Probably most significantly there's an epidemic of prescription pill abuse. This was a coal mining region and most of the coal mining jobs have disappeared in recent decades starting in the '80s. And there's a principal there named Flo McGuire who grew up in War, grew up in deep poverty herself, got a college education, came back and goes to work every day.
GABRIELShe describes it as a -- almost akin to a religious calling the way a preacher is called to preach. She said she really wants to improve the lives and the options for her students.
REHMTrip Gabriel. He's national correspondent for the New York Times. Thanks for joining us, Trip.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So what do you take from that, Ron Haskins, in terms of rural America, in terms of what's happening the cities, what's happening in the schools? Are we on our way to any real effort to improve the poverty situation in this country?
HASKINSNo. We have programs that cover food stamps and school lunch and so forth and Medicaid if they're -- if they can get the services in the county. America has a tradition of moving to opportunity. And a lot of people do leave those counties, and more are going to have to leave because without an economy...
REHMThey're going to have to leave.
HASKINSThey have to and that's a coldblooded thing to say. And it's unfortunate because families are close. They want to stay together. But if there's no basis for a solid economic foundation, then they have to go and seek opportunity elsewhere.
REHMBut how many opportunities are there elsewhere, Vanessa?
CARDENASWell, I think we have to keep focus on the fact that, you know, the government has several -- to change policies to create opportunity just like they did before, like the government did before. I talked about my own experience. You know, I came to this country from Bolivia, South America. I went to high school here. I had access to Pell grants. I had community support. I accessed the ESL Program, the English as Second Language Program.
CARDENASSo that is what made the difference in my life, you know. And I will tell you this, when I graduated high school I was probably one of four or five kids that actually were able to access post-secondary location because I was legal here. And that made a whole difference. So we can change policies by, you know, passing comprehensive immigration reform, increasing the minimum wage, making more investments in our educational system, providing -- expanding early childhood access. Those are really key programs that provide a path for people out of poverty.
REHMAnd how likely are they to happen, Bob Woodson?
WOODSONI doubt it but let me just say that one of the reasons that we -- it's difficult to have a rational discussion on this is because there are -- there's no monolithic group of poor people. You've got to disaggregate it. You got a third of the people who are poor who are just broke. Their values are intact. Character's intact but they lack opportunity. For them they use the system the way it was intended, as an ambulance service not a transportation system.
WOODSONAnother third are people like the woman in Milwaukee, single mom who saved 5,000 of welfare and she was indicted. They made the calculation that the disincentive isn't worth it so I'm done -- their character. The third of the people that are poor because of the chances that they take, the choices that they make, this requires some intervention as a precondition of getting opportunity.
WOODSONThe problem is people on the left look at all poor people as if they're category one, people on the right look at them as if they're all category three. And we miss each other when we're talking about constructing remedy. So I think that's important to make that distinction.
REHMRobert Woodson. He's founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. He's the author of "The Triumphs of Joseph: How Community Healers are Reviving our Streets and Neighborhoods." Short break here. When we come back, time to open the phones, questions, comments. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back. Lots of callers, lots of email. Here's our first email, from Jackson, N.H. Brian says, "When too much of a society's wealth is in the hands of too few of its citizens a healthy economy cannot function and the poor get poorer. Government support of the poor is necessary as charity is not a core value of everyone with the means to give."
REHMAnd finally, "Denying the honest poor sustenance because a few dishonest people will abuse the system is morally unconscionable." All right. I'm going to open the phones. First to Chris, in Johnson City, Tenn. Hi, Chris. You're on the air.
CHRISThank you very much for taking the call. What concerns me and the one issue that is rarely mentioned, just barely in this kind of discussion, is that the current minimum wage actually perpetuates poverty. 7.25 an hour yields an annual income of only $15,000. And I totally agree with your panelist who stated that the current census bureau's poverty threshold does not actually look at the cost of real living.
REHMAll right. Ron Haskins, what do you think about that minimum wage and the extent to which it contributes to poverty?
HASKINSI don’t have a brief against minimum wage. I have no problem with increased minimum wage, but there are downsides to it. There's a huge argument among economists about how the main downside is that some people lose jobs because employers will not be able to afford someone at 10 bucks an hour or whatever you increase it to.
HASKINSA lot of economists say that's true, but it'll be a very small effect. And it'd be vastly outweighed by the people that get increased wages. Other economists say that's not true. So there's always going to be an argument. We're going to increase the minimum wage sooner or later.
REHMSooner or later.
HASKINSWe always do it. Republicans certainly do not want to have a floor vote. They will want to vote against the minimum wage because it's very popular with the public. So sooner or later we'll increase the minimum wage. But I don't think it'll have a major impact on poverty.
REHMYou do not.
REHMAnd you don't either, Bob.
WOODSONI don't. First of all, 60 percent or some of them are teenagers working at fast food restaurants. It's not going to affect the families we're talking about. In fact, some of the families that I deal with, people coming out of prisons how have very poor -- I encourage them to go and volunteer. We've had some people actually work with contractors and volunteer for two weeks and then, as a consequence, earn their way into a job. And now they're doing -- so you've got to provide an entry.
EDELMANLet me say, Diane, it's very important to raise the minimum wage. And to do it right now. The number of people who will go out of poverty is in the low millions, but it's tangible. And people up and down, people who are still stuck in poverty because they only have part-time jobs will get more income. And people who have jobs that are a little above the poverty line will get more income.
EDELMANThe largest group of people who are poor in this country is single moms with children, over 40 percent. And they are poor because of low-wage jobs. And the minimum wage, raising it will make a difference.
REHMAll right. To Mark, in Dallas, Texas. You're on the air.
MARKGood morning, Diane. Two points, I don't believe it's possible to have a conversation about poverty -- I mean we've gone almost the entire program -- without addressing, even tangentially, the topic of income inequality and the concentration of wealth of in the hands of the top one or .1 percent. Policy in this country is driven almost entirely by the wants and needs of the top 1 percent.
MARKAnd just take a look at the Ryan budget, you know. You balance tax cuts for the wealthy on the backs of cuts in programs for poor people. So that's point number one. Number two, I couldn't disagree more strenuously with your panelist who, I think, categorized, you know, a third of poor people as sort of, well, they, you know, they made the wrong choices and it's not structural.
MARKAny time I hear, in the context of a conversation like this, that phrase, personal responsibility, I hear a dog whistle for, you know, shiftless brown people. I grew up in suburbia. I live in lily white suburbia, but I've got to tell you I don't think I've ever met a person who wouldn't much rather have a solid well-paying job and provide for their family in an adequate fashion, than, you know, look to the government for a handout.
REHMAll right. Sir, thanks for your call.
WOODSONLet me just say as a person who spends most of his life in low-income, high-crime areas, I can tell you that every six months 3,000 young blacks shoot and kill other blacks. We have a 9/11 every six months in America and it doesn't even get reported. They are not doing that because the wages are too low. They're doing it because there's a value crisis. They devalue their lives and the lives of others.
WOODSONAnd that's not going to be addressed through manipulate or taking money from the wealthy and giving it to the poor. That is a cultural crisis that has to be addressed, internal to that community.
HASKINSYeah, I just want to make a brief point. I could not disagree more strongly with the caller. The rich have undue influence. That's probably true, but they don't run the whole system. Diane, we spend $1 trillion a year on (unintelligible) programs between the federal government and the states. It increases almost every year on a per person and poverty basis.
HASKINSThe rich pay 93 percent. The top 20 percent of taxpayers pay 93 percent of income taxes. And the bottom 40 percent pay a negative 5 percent because we send them checks through the child tax credit and earned income tax credit. So there may be problems with government, maybe the influence of the rich is a little bit too much, but we still do a lot for inequality in this country and we address opportunity.
CARDENASCan I just say, I totally disagree with both of those speakers that just spoke. I'm not surprised. I think…
HASKINSYou can't disagree with numbers.
CARDENASYes. Well, let me give you one number -- let me give you two numbers, actually. That a CEO before made 20 or 30 times more than an average worker, but today's CEO, they make 270 times more than the average worker. So there's a huge, huge disparity there that we need to address. And I also feel that it's really appalling to say that, you know, African American boys are shooting each other because they have somehow disvalued.
CARDENASThere are structural fallacies in our system that have created a cycle of poverty and have trapped people in poverty. And we're not doing enough. I totally agree that personal responsibility has to be part of it, but we have to recognize that as a system we have failed entire communities.
WOODSONWhat's the solution? What is your solution?
CARDENASThere's many solutions on the table. There are policies…
WOODSONWell, what is your -- what is your solution?
CARDENASWell, I would say comprehensive immigration reform, raise the minimum wage, invest in our kids, invest in early childhood.
WOODSONWhat does that have to do with…
CARDENASThat's part of the solution.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Rebecca, in Jacksonville, Fla. Hi, there. You're on the air.
REBECCAYes. Hi, Diane. Some blame technology and globalization for job loss, but corporate greed has played a big part. Outsourcing, cutting hours and workers may help the corporate profit and their stockholders, but do little for the struggling middle class and the poor. Also, now that our First Amendment is for sale to the highest corporate bidder, it's no wonder GOP presidential hopefuls shamelessly went to Vegas to worship at the altar of what I call the golden calf, for those who remember their Bible. It's outrageous.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Peter Edelman?
EDELMANI think the question inequality is, in significant part, about political power, Diane. And I don't understand why you have, in terms of part of the politics in our country that's funded by these absolute oceans of money that are flowing in, are so antithetical to helping people who need help, especially to do better in their lives, but also to be helpful when they're down.
EDELMANThat just makes no sense. If we're going to talk about the top tenth of 1 percent, we need to talk about the other group all the way down to the bottom. And what we need in terms of helping them to be a full part of our society. And I just don't like these conversations where we paint with this broad brush and we make it sound like a third of this or a third of that is some sort of totally messed-up group of people.
EDELMANThere are issues to deal with. And we should be very careful about the definitions. We should understand that some of these problems are structural in our economy, in our educational system, in our criminal justice system. And some of these are about how people behave.
REHMVanessa, tell us about Fresno County, Calif.
REHMAnd the poverty there.
CARDENASSure. Well, Fresno County is sometimes called the Appalachian of the West. It's in San Joaquin Valley. And over 50 percent of its population is Latino. And the economy is dominated obviously by the agricultural industry. And the vast majority of agricultural workers are Latinos. And what you see there is that while most people have this idea that only immigrants work in agricultural work, in this community you actually see U.S.-born Latinos being trapped in this cycle of poverty.
CARDENASSo you see generation after generations of families and families, whole families, working in the agricultural system, picking our crops and simply not having access to better jobs. So there's a high percentage rate of poverty of Latinos in Fresno County. And many times people have to leave the state to access other jobs. But because they don't have the educational attainment that they need to succeed in other places they get trapped in the cycle.
REHMSo how might this U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action affect poverty in America, Ron?
HASKINSWe will have a huge fight over it and on this panel we would have a huge fight.
REHMWe'll have a huge fight.
HASKINSI think that there was a time when affirmative action was a good thing, that racism was pervasive in our society. I think we've changed a great deal as a society. And there's no question that affirmative action reduces the rights of people who -- that's why you see these Supreme Court cases. People are discriminated against.
HASKINSYou take Asians in California, they have to meet a much higher bar to get into the high-quality universities because there are so many Asians that get such high scores. So that's an example of affirmative action that I think most Americans -- if we had a popular vote, affirmative action would be ended as the Supreme Court apparently today -- I haven't, you know, wait to read the decision to see what the hooks and ladder are, but…
EDELMANWe have to read the opinion. That is a fairly narrow proposition in Michigan. It's the same thing that California did some years ago and the Supreme Court did not take the case. Certainly, for advocates of affirmative action, it's a step backward, but it doesn't overrule the Grutter case. It's only about the interstitial areas where states can act. And so, that in and of itself is -- it's big, but it's cataclysmic.
EDELMANHowever, your question is what does affirmative action have to do with poverty. And I will tell you, not a lot.
EDELMANBecause if you look at the number of poor kids who are making it up through the upside down funnel and getting into college, even community college, but certainly the Ivy's and the elite places. Very, very few. So we need to understand that whatever our position is on affirmative action, pro or con, what we have to do about poverty in this country, affirmative action does not have a lot to do with it.
REHMPeter Edelman. He's professor at Georgetown University Law Center, author of numerous books, including, "So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have just a few moments left. I'd like to hear from each of you the one thing that you think would matter in terms of changing the landscape of poverty that we see now. Robert Woodson?
WOODSONFirst of all, I think we need to go into those neighborhoods and visit the families that are 30 percent, that have -- are raising children that are not dropping out of school, or in jail and drugs, to try to find out how those families are able to achieve against the odds in those very difficult circumstance. And determine what are the lessons that we can draw that can be applied to the 70 percent. There is a lack of imagination, new thinking, innovation. And I think it comes from people who have demonstrated they've got solutions.
CARDENASI would say two things. First of all, I would just ask people to realize that there are solutions out there. And we have to continue believing that, as a nation, we can reduce poverty in the future. But specifically I would say, for the Latino community, comprehensive immigration reform is huge. It would lift 12 million people, pretty much, out of the shadows and give them economic access to better jobs, access to home ownership and just really improve their economic outlook in the long term. And comprehensive immigration reform would actually be good for our economy.
HASKINSI think the single best solution would be restore two-parent family, but I'm not optimistic we know how to do that and it's not going to happen. So I would say then the best bet is the public schools. We need to spend more money in the public schools. We need to have more preschool. And above all, we need to pay teachers more. If they stay in these inner-city schools, they should get higher pay so we can keep good teachers in the inner-city schools.
EDELMANWe need to have all hands on deck. That's not a phrase I like, but we need everybody to participate. We need an honest discussion. We need to deal in the facts. We need public policy, absolutely we need private action, civic action, community action, action by individuals on behalf of themselves. We need all of that. We need decent jobs in this country. We need a wonderful education system. We need to deal with all the people locked up in our prisons. We can't answer this with just one thing. It won't work. We really need to get to understand the structural issues and the personal issues.
REHMYou were in the first Clinton administration. How did they do?
EDELMANThey did actually pretty good on poverty, but with one serious failing. The poverty at the end of Bill Clinton's presidency was 11.3 percent, almost as low as it had ever been. We had a hot economy in the second half of that decade. We had the earned income tax credit, which made a major difference. And then there's the welfare law, which Ron Haskins and I have a long history of discussing this together.
EDELMANHe, indeed, is the architect of that legislation. I think that that legislation, while at the beginning people did go to work. No question about it because it was a hot economy mainly. And if you look now, less 4 million people on it and in the state of Wyoming there are only 600 people, 4 percent of the children in poor families receiving cash assistance. So I will say to you that that was a great failure.
REHMAll right. We've got lots more to discuss, but we'll have to leave it for another time. Thank you all, Peter Edelman, Ron Haskins, Vanessa Cardenas, Robert Woodson. I know you'll be talking about this more and so will we. Thank you so much.
WOODSONThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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