The Unfinished Agenda:
Race, Poverty and Gender in America
By U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone
I want to address a matter that was of great concern to President Kennedy,
and was of defining urgency to his brother Robert - the unacceptable level
of poverty that still exists in the midst of the enormous wealth of this
As we turn our thoughts to the new century, we can celebrate a great deal.
The past hundred years have seen massive improvements in the quality of
our national life, American leadership in getting the world past murderous
global conflict, and successful transcendence of economic crisis. Our population
is more diverse than ever, and at mid-century we dismantled the legal framework
encasing our original sin of state-sanctioned racism. We are in many varied
ways a model for much of the world.
But there is at least one way in which we are not a model, one area in which
we have in recent times been moving in the wrong direction. That is in fulfilling
our national vow of equal opportunity. We said in 1776 that every American
should have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In
1997 that national commitment is in need of refurbishing and renewal.
More than 35 million Americans, one out of every seven of our fellow citizens,
officially are poor. More than one in five American children are poor. And
the poor are getting poorer. In 1994, of the poor children under the age
of six, nearly half lived in families with incomes below half the poverty
line. That figure has doubled over the past 20 years. The number of people
who work full-time and still are poor has risen dramatically as well. In
1975, 6% of young children who lived in families with at least one full-time
worker were poor. By 1994, that figure had gone up to 15%.
Poor people are increasingly hemmed into poor neighborhoods, with everything
that means in terms of poor schools, crime, violence, lack of accessible
jobs, and all the rest. The number of people living in concentrations of
poverty in neighborhoods of more than 40% poverty went up by 75% from 1970
to 1980 and then doubled between 1980 and 1990. Over ten million Americans
now live in very high poverty neighborhoods.
Minorities are poorer than the rest of Americans; African-Americans at 29.3%
in 1995 and Hispanics at 30.3%. Female-headed households are even poorer
- 44.6% of the children who lived in such families were poor in 1994, and
almost half of all children who are poor live in female-headed households.
What does it mean to be poor in America? We can offer no single description
of American poverty. But, for many, perhaps most, it means homes with peeling
paint, inadequate heating, uncertain plumbing. It means that only the very
lucky among the children receive a decent education. It often means a home
where some go to bed hungry and malnutrition is a frequent visitor. It means
that the most elementary components of the good life in America - a vacation
with the kids, an evening out, a comfortable home - are but distant and
unreachable dreams - more likely to be seen on the television set than in
the neighborhood. And for almost all of the poor, all 35 million - it means
a life that is a constant struggle to obtain the merest necessities of existence,
those things most of us take for granted. We can do better.
It is an old saw that the rich get richer and poor get poorer. For nearly
two decades that cliché has been a painful fact. Nearly all of America's
economic growth has benefited the wealthiest among us, and the tiny slice
of the pie allotted to the poor has actually gotten smaller. From 1977 to
1992 the richest 1% of Americans gained 91% in after-tax income, while the
poorest fifth actually lost 17% of their income. The top 1%'s total income
equals that of the entire bottom two-fifths of the population.
Why? One view is, it's their fault. We have had too much welfare for too
long and "they" have become dependent on welfare and "they"
don't get off their couch and go out and get a job. We have just had a major
national debate on this whole subject, and the proponents of the "blame
the welfare, blame the welfare recipients, blame the poor" view won.
But, there is another view. And it happens to be the one that fits the facts.
That view is that there are some fundamental problems in our American economy,
some fundamental problems posed by the widening gap between rich and poor
in this nation, and some fundamental problems in the way we view women and
People with less education are poorer. White high school dropouts were earning
33% less in 1994 than they were in 1972, and African-American dropouts'
earnings were cut in half. Young families have lost income, with entry level
wages for male high school graduates down 27% from 1979 to 1995, and down
10% for female high school graduates.
I will be the first to say that adults in our society need to take responsibility
for themselves if they possibly can. Personal responsibility is a part of
my values and it should be part of everyone's values. I will be the first
to say that there are some basic issues about values that we need to confront.
But until we come to a real understanding of the structural problems in
our economy and our society that are getting in our way, we will continue
to legislate by bumper stickers and slogans.
We need to have an honest national conversation, and an honest conversation
in every community, about what is really going on, about why we face the
unacceptable level of poverty and near-poverty, and about what we are going
to do about it.
We must not let the current debate over welfare or the role of government
be used to mask the grim realities of American poverty. Most poor people
are not poor by choice. Most would prefer to work for a decent wage. Nor
can we offer a justification for the children who are born into a poverty
that they did not choose or deserve and whose conditions prevent them from
gaining the skills and ambitions which would allow them to escape
I have come here today to make a commitment. I am going to do everything
I possibly can to start that national conversation. I am going to travel
the length and breadth of this country, as Robert Kennedy did thirty years
ago, and as Eleanor Roosevelt did during the Depression, to observe the
face of American poverty, not from behind a Senate desk, but in the streets,
the villages and neighborhoods of those in distress. And hopefully I also
can help to dramatize their plight, to reveal for many of our fellow citizens,
the face of poverty as it exists at the end of the millennium.
And, I want to share with our nation not only the problem as it really exists,
but also some of the wonderful, promising, exciting things that people are
doing in communities to tackle the problem. And I have to say, if it is
not obvious, I do not know all the answers. I do not know most of the answers.
No one does. If any one of your professors here tells you they do, run the
other way. These are hard, tough issues. We have to work on them in an open
and honest way.
Poverty has many faces. There are the elderly, now less poor than the rest
of America because of the success of Social Security and Medicare and Supplemental
Security Income, as well as our private pension system. But women and minorities
among the elderly are disproportionately poor. Our challenge for the elderly
is to find the right way to protect Social Security and preserve Medicare.
There are the disabled, protected by the historic Americans with Disabilities
Act but experiencing a backlash in recent benefit cuts, and for those who
are employable, still unemployed at very high rates. There are dislocated
workers forced out of jobs by downsizing and plant relocation. There are
women and children made poor by divorce or abandonment. There are rural
poor who live far from available work, and farmers who work as hard as anyone
could and can't make ends meet.
I will visit all of these and help to tell their stories. Their problems
are real and pressing and we are not doing enough about them. But there
are four groups - four overlapping groups - whom I want particularly to
discuss today, groups who tend even more to set off the bumper sticker talk
and the political hot buttons and the simple-minded solutions. H.L. Mencken
once said, "For every problem there is a solution that is neat and
simple - and wrong."
These groups are the working poor, welfare recipients, the inner-city and
rural poor, and poor children and youth.
Our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing. Think about those
numbers I cited a moment ago about entry-level wages. We recite the mantra
of good jobs being replaced by lousy jobs until our minds are numb. How
many times have we heard, from Bob Reich and many others, the numbers about
the rich getting richer and the poor literally losing real income? There
are real people behind those numbers, literally millions of people, and
more every day, who are working as hard as they can and still are poor.
And if we had a more honest measure of poverty the numbers would be even
higher. We know the answer so well that we recite it as a bumper sticker:
Make work pay.
But talk is cheap and bumper sticker slogans are a particularly cheap form
of talk. We are a day late and a dollar short in doing what we should be
doing to help. If there is any group of deserving poor in the United States
- although that is a term I greatly dislike - it is the working poor. We
have raised the earned income tax credit substantially. That is good. We
now have raised the minimum wage a little. That is good. But both are still
too low, and we look the other way when the question is whether lousy jobs
that too many Americans have carry health coverage. We do a little shuffle
when the real cost of child care is mentioned, and a small calculation on
the back of an envelope would reveal that the parents with the lousy jobs
can't afford the child care, especially if it is only one parent with one
And now we are about to flood the labor market with a new supply of low-wage
workers, pushed out there by the bumper sticker command of our new welfare
law to find a job, any job. The vast majority of them are women, who still
earn less than men, and minority women at that, who earn less than white
women, so these new workers are especially likely to end up in low-wage
jobs. And elementary labor economics says they are - if anything - going
to depress these wages further for everyone at the low-wage end of the labor
Simply put, there are not enough jobs available that are geographically
accessible and sufficiently undemanding of technical skills for all the
long-term welfare recipients who have now been told to enter the job market
or else. In real life, people of color will encounter discrimination when
they try to find a job. But for a huge proportion of those who do find work,
there will be a different, serious issue - how do I make ends meet? To add
to the problem, in the same welfare bill there are large food stamp cuts
that by 2002 will reduce the benefits across the board by 20%, for everyone
including the millions of working poor who get a little help from food stamps
in their constant struggle to keep things together.
The left hand does not want to ask what the right hand is doing. The problem
of low-wage work has been getting worse and worse for nearly 25 years. It
is a problem of economics, compounded by issues of gender and race discrimination
that permeate our society. We need to talk about it and we need to act.
If some people will leave welfare for low-wage jobs because they have to,
even though they end up worse off, others will fall prey to the single worst
aspect of the welfare bill - the arbitrary, fall-off-the-cliff five-year
time limit for federally financed cash assistance, which can be even shorter
if the states choose, and many of the states are so choosing. People can
play by all the rules and do everything that is asked of them, and if they
still come to a point after five years or intermittent spells on assistance
totaling five years and have no job, they are out.
The welfare law does allow 20% of the caseload to be exempted from the time
limit. I am sorry to say that I believe the number who do not find work,
or cannot go to work because they have a chronically ill child or relative
to care for, or cannot go to work because they face violent retaliation
from a husband or boyfriend if they do, or are functionally disabled, is
much higher than 20%.
This approach is not the answer. The answer is not ending welfare as we
know it. It is not ending welfare by fiat. The answer is to deal honestly
with the real causes of poverty. We have to do this by genuinely making
work pay, including health care and the child care that go along with it.
But we do have to do it in two other fundamental ways as well. by committing
ourselves to a genuine, positive, realistic developmental and educational
strategy for children and young people so that they reach adulthood with
the tools and attitudes they need to be responsible, self-sufficient adult
citizens; and by reclaiming our neighborhoods of endemic poverty and helping
the parents and the other decent people there to create a safe and healthy
environment in which to raise children and bring them along the road to
These last challenges underscore the complexity of the tasks and the complexity
of the list of those who have to take responsibility if serious change is
going to occur. There is a lot of talk going around about devolution, another
politicized oversimplification in my estimation. Most of those who talk
devolution confine their reformism impulse to handing control to the states
and at bargain-basement prices to boot. The governors, who salivate for
control, are all too ready to strike Faustian bargains for control without
the money to carry it off. I am an enthusiast of devolution. but only so
long as the term is defined accurately, and the recipients of the sharing
of responsibility include people in neighborhoods, non-profits, and mayors
and county executives.
If we are going to be effective in assuring that the primary responsibility
for children is where it belongs, which is with their parents, we have to
stop and ask whether we are helping them do their job or getting in their
way. We have to get past this silly political debate about whether it takes
a village or it takes a family. The point is, the idea of community is very
real and critically important. The idea of community is far broader than
government. It is far broader than any particular program. Families may
need help with income or services. But they can also use support in the
arrangement of hours they work or the options afforded by their employee
assistance plan. Schools that welcome parents and make themselves into neighborhood
beacons by the hours they keep and their partnerships with community organizations
can be a great help to parents struggling to keep their children from succumbing
to the pull of the street.
We need to pay particular attention to young men. The welfare law focuses
on women, although not exactly in a positive way. It focuses on men in its
tough new provisions on child support. But we need to be promoting responsible
fatherhood, and that means marriage and involvement with the children and
two earners in the family. One reason marriages do not form is lack of opportunity.
Communities need to work on strategies to help young women and young men
both to make it successfully into the job market. We have had a strategy
for young men, but it is the wrong strategy. It is called prison, and it
is eating its way through higher education budgets and school budgets across
America. We will only stop feeding the correctional appetite if we stop
supplying new customers.
But if too many parents find it terribly hard to meet all of their responsibilities,
and too many young people are falling by the wayside, communities cannot
do the job of helping all by themselves. We need government and we need
the federal government now.
Because there are some steps we can take as a nation - right now - that
would make an enormous difference in the lives of children. It is a scandal
that 10 million children in America do not have basic health care to help
them grow healthy and ready to reach their full potential. It is a scandal
that despite irrefutable and irreducible evidence that the Women, Infants
and Children (WIC) program is successful at providing women and children
a healthy and nutritious diet, we have yet to fully fund it. We know WIC
works. Yet, currently it only reaches 50% of the eligible population. We
can and must do better. It is a scandal that while we know that Head Start
is effective in helping children from diverse backgrounds and circumstances
to prepare for school, we have yet to fully fund it. Currently, Head Start
reaches only 17% of eligible 3-year olds and only 41% of eligible 4-year
Just because children are not the heavy hitters with the high-powered Washington
lobbyists does not mean the Congress and the President should remain silent.
There simply is no excuse for not fully funding WIC and Head Start or ensuring
basic health care for children - now. As a U.S. Senator I intend to bring
these issues to the floor and fight again and again to force votes. And
I expect to win because these kinds of successful anti-poverty programs
command broad-based support among the American people.
We also need federal financial support for many of the things people need
to be empowered to do locally. There is a difference between federal funding
and federal administration or even detailed federal regulation, just as
there is a difference between government funding and the question of who
carries out the activities with the public money. We have a large, vital
nonprofit sector in America, but it is able to do its work only because
it receives considerable public funding. There are some who choose not to
know this and somehow think the federal money can be removed without negative
effect. This is the financial version of the Immaculate Conception.
There are hundreds and thousands of marvelous initiatives occurring in so
many ways all over this nation that are making a major difference in the
lives of poor people. We do not lack ideas. We do not lack knowledge. We
do not lack committed people. But we lack scale. We lack a national commitment.
We lack the means and methodology to get the shoulders of enough Americans
at the wheel, to push our vehicle of opportunity out of the rut in which
it has become stuck. We lack a genuine national debate over the real underlying
questions - the way our economy is structured and the very real issues of
race and gender that are so deeply infused in so much of what goes on.
It was a combination of the civil rights movement and the activist movements
of the sixties which generated our last truly national attack on the problems
of poverty. That effort expired in the conflagration of Vietnam. But the
successes of the civil rights activists, of the women's movement, of the
peace movement were a clear demonstration of the truism that in a democracy
significant social change comes from the bottom up, from an aroused opinion
that forces our ruling institutions to do the right thing.
Robert Kennedy was fond of a quote from Albert Camus that we could use to
start our journey today. "Perhaps we cannot make this a world in which
children are no longer tortured," Camus said. "But at least we
can reduce the number of tortured children." Won't you join me in that
This was adapted from a speech given at the John F. Kennedy School of
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