— Alice Gaston, Advocates for The Other America — On Tuesday, July 10th, I attended an event at the Newseum discussing how poverty has changed fifty years after the publication of Michael Harrington’s groundbreaking book, The Other America. This seminal work on poverty exposed the depth and breadth of poverty in the United States at a time when it was rarely seen or discussed in public discourse. Read by Lyndon Johnson and other policymakers, the book helped spark the War on Poverty and catalyzed a new generation of activists to fight for the most vulnerable in American society.
The event—sponsored by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Demos; and the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy—brought together experts such as Peter Edelman and Angela Glover-Blackwell, among many others, to discuss the current state of poverty in America. Topics ranged from the labor market, to the budget/austerity debate, to the federal safety net. (The full program can be viewed here.)
A general consensus by all panelists was the success of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, in relieving hunger in America as well as importance of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for the working poor. A surprising criticism by many was the inability of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), previously known as welfare, to respond proactively to the Great Recession. Panelists discussed how the block grant nature of the TANF restricted the program’s ability to expand to meet the increased need of recent years and the differing eligibility requirements between states left many of the most vulnerable without TANF support.
While the event was a success in bringing together great minds working on poverty issues, it did not address the crucial question “what’s next?” Many understand the solutions to the problems facing the neediest and solutions are available, but they come with a price-tag. In this age of fiscal austerity, deep budget cuts, and a looming tax crisis, programs relating to the poor will continue to be on the chopping block at every turn, further deteriorating the funding for the neediest. Advocates for The Other America (AFTOA), named in honor of Michael’s Harrington’s work, is working to answer the “what’s next” question by finding creative and effective legislative solutions that work for all Americans.