“Being poor is running in place.”
Author John Scalzi wrote this about his own experience of growing up in poverty. Today it is not only poor families but many middle class families who are furiously running in place. Millions are working hard to move forward, or just to make ends meet, and getting nowhere. Anyone who wishes to address poverty and strengthen economic opportunity needs to connect the dots between the needs of the working poor and those of the middle class.
Stagnant social mobility, increasing inequality, and the rise of low wage jobs without benefits are affecting both groups. For the working poor, these trends mean that the ability to move forward and upward economically is not only stunted, it is often cut off. For the middle class, these trends mean an ongoing susceptibility to financial shocks like job loss, unexpected medical expenses and predatory mortgages and an inability to adequately prepare for the future.
In this environment, no amount of individual effort, self-improvement, or thrift can guarantee a secure middle-class lifestyle. If current circumstances continue, even those who are able to move from poverty to the middle class on paper (in terms of education, job title, or income level) may never know long-term financial stability.
Public policy has a vital role to play to enable poor Americans to have a chance to move into the middle class and to ensure greater security for those already there. The good news is that these goals are compatible ones. Many of the same policies that can help the working poor climb into the middle class - investments in education, in the creation of good jobs, and in asset building, for example - can also strengthen middle-class financial security.
Since the Johnson era, anti-poverty policy has relied on income programs to see families through tough times, human capital investments to help individuals obtain employable skills, and an equitable, growing economy that offers good jobs to those who obtain those skills. This three-prong approach is still valid, but it needs substantial recommitment and reinvigoration.
The difference between now and the past era is that the threat of economic insecurity is no longer a persistent problem of just the poor. Economic insecurity has become the ongoing condition of far too many U.S. households. In 2010, less than one in three American households (32%) reported having sufficient emergency funds, down from 38% in 2007. In the 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, 19 percent of working-age households reported having no assets or negative wealth. By 2010 that figure had risen to 33 percent, the highest percentage since 1989, the first year for which consistent data is available.
The widespread and increasing nature of American financial insecurity adds significantly to the urgency for effective policy action. Fortunately it also adds to the ability to find broad support for such policies among American households across the class spectrum.
Public opinion about the causes and consequences of poverty has historically communicated negative stereotypes of the poor and a distrust of government welfare programs. As persistent financial insecurity has become more widespread, these attitudes are starting to shift. In 2008 Gallup found that 69 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the nation’s efforts to deal with poverty. In June 2013 that percentage rose to 80 percent.
At first read this might suggest a growing frustration with governmental antipoverty programs as inefficient and with the poor too reliant on entitlements. But other data suggests an acknowledgment of the hard work and obstacles faced by those living in poverty. In 1994 less than half (49 percent) of Americans believed that most of the poor worked, as opposed to relying on government handouts. Well prior to the current recession that figure had grown to 60 percent.
The majority of Americans now believe that the middle class has less opportunity to get ahead than in previous decades (52 percent), less job and financial security (65 percent), and less expendable income after covering basic expenses (60 percent). The majority (54 percent) also now name financial insecurity as the top concern of the middle class. As the majority of Americans experience these concerns it has become easier for a larger group to identify and empathize with the ongoing financial instability that is a daily fact of life for those in poverty.
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