During each of this century’s first six years, nearly a million more Americans, on average, sunk into poverty. Almost one in 10 of us is expected to rely on food stamps this year; in New York City, make that one in seven. Today, more Americans are poor than make up Canada’s entire population.
It would be hard to argue that our society lacks the material resources to end poverty. So, given the staggering, top-to-bottom failures of the Bush doctrine and the very real possibility of a new spirit in Washington, is it possible to seize this historic moment to end the scourge of poverty?
I believe we can, but only if we come to grips with the real obstacle. It’s not, nor has it ever been, a particular president (not Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush) or a particular policy (not anti-union rulings or the gutting of support for affordable housing). The real obstacles are our ideas—beliefs about poverty that rob citizens of power to follow our common sense, our own interests, and our innate need for fairness. For three decades, the “drip, drip, drip” of false and dangerous ideas has stunted our sense of the possible. These five are especially deadly:
Myth #1. We don’t know how to end poverty.
Of course we know how. Against those who saw “economic laws as sacred,” Franklin Roosevelt argued that “economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.” So in 1944, Roosevelt called for an Economic Bill of Rights, building on a slew of New Deal breakthroughs, from Social Security to the National Labor Relations Act, that made possible a huge leap toward the end of poverty. From the 1940s to the ’70s, the real household income of the poorest fifth of Americans more than doubled, advancing faster than any other quintile.