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Editorial: Don't delay on addressing poverty

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MAY 13, 2015 5:00 AM

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On Tuesday, President Obama held a panel at Georgetown University on race and poverty. Up to this point in time, Obama has typically been the champion of the middle class; his campaign strategies focused heavily on emphasizing the growth of the middle class. Recently, however, Obama has spoken more often and in a frank manner about the poor.

Poverty and race have close ties in the United States. For example, the white child poverty rate stood at 10.7 percent in 2013, compared with African-American children at 38.3 percent and Latino children at 30.4 percent.

It is unsurprising, then, that Obama has shifted his focus to the underprivileged — racial tensions have erupted across the United States as simmering unrest has finally boiled over. And let’s not forget, poverty leads to desperation, desperation to crime, and crime to imprisonment. Systemic disenfranchisement is made much easier when the group being targeted lacks the resources necessary to combat it.

In Georgetown, Obama called for all sides of the political spectrum to reach agreements on America’s abject poverty, an issue stalemated for decades. He made special note of his belief that conservatives care about the poor, but they fail to act on behalf of the poor when creating legislation.

This is an unfortunate reality, especially when considering how much poverty and stagnant social mobility cost society. In addition to inequality, tension, and violence in U.S. cities everywhere, there are very real economic costs. Child poverty costs the government $550 billion a year, nearly 4 percent of the U.S. GDP. Without social programs, the poverty level would have reached 30 percent  in 2011, according to the progressive-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Poverty also makes it difficult to succeed in school and even harder to reach college, a prerequisite for social mobility in today’s world.

Ideals of meritocracy are embedded in the “American Dream.” Those who work hard can succeed here, that’s the idea. Winning the social lottery by being born into wealth should not determine a person’s success in the world, yet it is often the determining factor.

But fewer Americans believe in that dream nowadays. Gallup polling found that in 1998, 81 percent said there was “plenty of opportunity” for the average person to get ahead in America. In 2013, that number was barely a majority, at 52 percent.

The problem of social mobility in America, or lack thereof, can be attributed to what has become known as the “Great Gatsby Curve.” As wealth becomes concentrated in the top 1 percent of society, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone outside that circle to move up in the socioeconomic hierarchy. The United States has a very low rate of social mobility compared with many European countries. The poorest quintile of children have about a 9 percent chance of making it to the top quintile in the United States, while in places such as Denmark, the number is closer to 18 percent, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes in the American Dream. The land of opportunity is not living up to its rhetoric, and if serious progress is to be made in the areas of disparity, racial tensions, and inequality, poverty is the root source of degradation that must be addressed.


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