Words from our President: How Solving Poverty Will Help America Come Back

In the State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” The President, it turns out, had been talking about an essay released earlier that day by Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for the Washington Post. According to a Foreign Policy article, Obama was quite taken with Kagan’s arguments explaining why America is not in fact, in decline. Thomas Friedman,  New York Times columnist, three time Pulitzer Prize winner and mega-bestselling author, isn’t nearly so sanguine. For Friedman, an American decline may not be inevitable, but it does look increasingly likely if we don’t act decisively. So, we brought Friedman to address NASCSP members and partners prior to our Mid-Winter Conference. Why? Because we can’t help but notice that every challenge to our country that he describes ultimately ties back to the very poverty issues we work to combat every single day.

If you’ve read Friedman’s new book, That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We Can Come Back, you already know what he believes. How we adapt to globalization and adjust to the information technology revolution, how we cope with soaring budget deficits and growing demands on government on every level, and how we manage a world of both rising energy consumption and rising climate threats will ultimately determine our place in the world. Do any of these things sound familiar to you from your job? It’s interesting that as candidates jostle to position themselves as the most “pro-America,” no one’s willing to talk about the number of people in poverty and how that affects our economy, our future prospects, our energy consumption—in short, everything.

So we sat down to talk with Thomas Friedman about our role in arresting an American decline. Here are some highlights:

On the Web of Education, Technology, and Energy

Freidman says that in today’s economy individuals need to completely reinvent themselves frequently. They need to be ready to change careers, think strategically, and stay up-to-date on technology. He questions whether our current educational system prepares students for this. Aside from the obvious connection to CSBG-funded efforts around education from Head Start to job training that help create economic security, the other link I see is with the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP).  WAP is about as cutting-edge as it gets with all the technology, best practices, metrics, and state-of-the-art training protocols it employs. It addresses both energy consumption and climate issues as well as economic security. Now more than ever this nation needs this program. We need to protect and develop it to serve as an energy-efficiency influence hub, spreading best practices in all communities regardless of income level.

The Competition Equation

Freidman said, “I’m a big believer that Harvard is better because of Yale; the Washington Post is better because of the New York Times. Competition brings out the best and keeps things focused.” He’s talking about the global economy, of course, but the same principal applies to what the Obama Administration wants in terms of accountability for all federally-funded programs, including CSBG. This is necessary to direct scarce resources toward only the best and highest-impact strategies. Political perspectives aside, CSBG is moving toward a framework that will hold all its agencies accountable for performance. The better the strategies we put on the ground, the more likely we’ll be to survive and thrive.  This competition, though, doesn’t produce winners and losers. It produces winners or losers. Friedman says, “Part of the earth race is we can all be winners; we all have to be winners or we’ll all be losers.” This is true too, with our work to end poverty. Either we all rise to the highest standard or we all lose funding.

Falling Behind

Freidman talks a lot about the efficiency of China and the high academic performance of Chinese students compared to the sluggishness of America’s infrastructure and education system. He argues that we’ve grown complacent about gridlock, inefficiency, and low academic achievement. “What we don’t want is to absolutely fall behind. There’s a real hunger for greatness in China—as there was with the new immigrants in America—we’ve lost that in this country.“  But there’s actually something more tangible than an abstract yearning or lack of same at work here. Take education for example. According to the Schools Matter blog, the American education gap is really a socio-economic issue.  U.S. students from high-income families who attend well-funded schools outscore nearly all other countries on international tests. Only our children from low-income homes who attend poorly funded schools score below the international average. “Our scores look low because the U.S. has the highest percentage of children in poverty of all industrialized countries (25%, compared to Denmark’s 3%),” says Schools Matter, “American education has been successful; the problem is poverty.”

Since we work in the anti-poverty field, we understand the interconnectedness of income and energy security and our nation’s overall health.  The most vulnerable Americans suffer disproportionately from loss of jobs and rising prices, especially soaring energy costs. The growing number of Americans in poverty exacerbates the very conditions that cause poverty, locking us in a vicious cycle.

So what have I learned from Thomas Friedman? The work we do each day is what our country needs not just to raise some number of our citizens out of poverty, but also to ensure long-term prosperity and security for all Americans. Also, we cannot rest on the perceived laurels of successful programs, like CSBG and Weatherization. We must work vigilantly to prove these programs are unique and value-added. We must also be willing to constantly ask ourselves how we can improve them for the better.