The Common Good
June 2007

Tools for Change

by Mary Nelson | June 2007

Ending Poverty in America is an insightful and readable book that contains concise chapters by experts who describe the complex and intertwined aspects of poverty in ...

Ending Poverty in America is an insightful and readable book that contains concise chapters by experts who describe the complex and intertwined aspects of poverty in America—including such neglected aspects as financial services, rural poverty, and regional inequity. The book also provides concrete descriptions of programs and initiatives that are working and suggests practical and incremental policy changes that could be enacted to make a difference. I find the book strangely hopeful despite the times.

Nowadays politicians hardly mention poverty; government policies (and inaction) have increased the number of poor people, while cumulative tax cuts for the wealthy dry up government resources to reduce poverty. Despite this, John Edwards, the book's editor, calls for a national goal to eliminate poverty in America in 30 years. A bold call. Jeffrey Sachs laid out a similar challenge in his book The End of Poverty, and it is echoed in the ONE Campaign and in recent campaigns from the religious community, including Sojourners/Call to Renewal's Covenant for a New America, the Christian Churches Together statement on poverty, the Catholic Charities Campaign to Reduce Poverty in America, and others. Although this book helps us move from dismay to concrete, attainable action, the impact and role of the religious community is strangely missing.

Early chapters define the "what" and "who" of poverty. Edwards traveled around the country for two years, listening to poor people. He came to our place, Bethel New Life in Chicago, and listened to people with low-wage jobs struggling to make it; people with credit problems; people recently out of prison and marked for the bottom rung of society; women juggling work, school, and households; the formerly homeless; and many others. In the book, stories of such people are interspersed with the important facts and analysis that help us understand the complexity of problems and solutions.

The interconnectedness of all the pieces of poverty is amplified by journalist David Shipler in his chapter titled "Connecting the Dots." He writes, "There is no single variable that can be altered to help working people move away from the edge of poverty. Only where the full array of factors is attached can America fulfill its promise. ... Relief will come, if at all, in an amalgam that recognizes both the society's obligation through government and business, and the individual's obligation through labor and family—and the commitment of both society and individual through education."

THE BOOK'S NEXT section outlines the "why" of poverty, helping us understand, for example, the major impact of excessive credit card access, payday lending, the shortage of affordable housing, the mismatch between where people live and where the jobs are, and the underfunding of mass transportation, health care, and education. It includes an intriguing chapter on the vanishing middle class and a new insight into fragile families and the impact of income insecurity.

The final section of the book explores the "how" of ending poverty. Writers suggest potential levers for change and propose concrete reform strategies around labor market and work supports, and asset-building programs designed to build social capital with families and communities. They share tools that have worked (and need to be expanded), such as the Earned Income Tax Credit; asset building through home ownership and Individual Development Accounts; successful schools such as the Harlem Children's Zone; and the positive impact a more progressive taxation policy would have.

Several of the writers' notions are especially intriguing. Many of the low-paying jobs available can't be shipped overseas. We should revalue (through higher wages) these face-to-face jobs, especially those that educate our children, take care of our sick and elderly, and provide our consumer services. Another is Angela Glover Blackwell's chapter on regional equity as a new paradigm for change. Inner-city communities are now being gentrified and poor people are being pushed to inner-ring suburbs. Establishing regional equity—including housing location patterns, more mass transportation, and tools such as inclusionary zoning—could make a major positive impact.

In the final chapter, Edwards concludes, "Our challenge is to take the best ideas and the most innovative thinking and couple them with the determination and commitment to put them into action, so that we as a nation finally end the plague of poverty." This book is a tool that can help us meet that challenge. n

Mary Nelson, a Sojourners/Call to Renewal board member, is president emeritus of Bethel New Life Christian Community Development Association in Chicago.

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