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 great country.

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. For now.

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 minorities.

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 lousy job.

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 market.

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 responsible adulthood.

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 olds!

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 effort?

This was adapted from a speech given at the John F. Kennedy School of Public Affairs.

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