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By Melissa Stevenson*
On June 9, 2011, the Center for American Progress Action Fund convened a discussion panel entitled “Strengthening Families: Developing a Progressive Agenda that Promotes Family Stability and Cuts Poverty,” moderated by Professor Peter Edelman of Georgetown University Law Center. Panelists Racquel S. Russell (Special Assistant to the President for Mobility and Opportunity, White House Domestic Policy Council), Lisalyn Jacobs (Vice President for Government Relations, Legal Momentum), and Aisha Moodie-Mills (Advisor, LGBT Policy and Racial Justice, Center for American Progress) discussed the need for progressives to remain committed to poverty prevention and alleviation in the face of constant attacks on safety net programs.
Keynote speaker Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) asserted that the federal government is the only entity that is capable of making a real difference in the fight against poverty. Indeed, it was federal programs like Medicare and Social Security that led to a dramatic reduction in poverty rates among senior citizens.
As the panel observed, poverty is really about a wide range of issues. Education and workforce development are as important as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in confronting poverty. Even with a strengthened safety net, without good jobs, poor families will never achieve sustainable financial stability; the combined total of TANF and food stamp benefits rarely raises a family above the poverty line. The aim of these programs should be to help low-income families become financially self-sustaining. However, low-income households, many headed by single mothers, continue to face barriers to work, most notably a lack of access to affordable childcare. Meanwhile, funding is being pulled from workforce development programs, which would significantly help women obtain the skills necessary to find stable work.
Cuts to Head Start and Pell Grants compound the problem by depriving poor children of access to quality education and early childhood programs and continuing the intergenerational cycle of poverty. It also deprives the United States of a growing and thriving middle class that is capable of out-educating and out-performing other nations. By cutting the cycle of poverty, real investments in education and workforce training will reduce the number of people in poverty and the number of families who need the help of TANF and food stamps.
There is a very real need for a “shared sacrifice” to reduce the deficit, but it cannot come at the expense of the poor who were hurt most by the recent recession. Policy advocates must come together across issue areas to develop a cohesive agenda to tackle persistent poverty and protect funding for income support, education, and job training policies and programs.
*Melissa Stevenson is a Research and Programs Intern with the National Council for Research on Women. She is pursuing a Master of Public Administration at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.