Strengthening Families, Addressing Economic Inequality

October 17, 2011

by Jeremy Leaming

A couple of national newspaper columnists examine some numbers and commentary on poverty and economic inequality, as the Occupy Wall Street protests hit their one month anniversary with noted momentum.

The Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., notes in this piece, some comments on poverty rates of families made during a recent Republican presidential debate by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. Essentially Santorum, a longtime advocate of Religious Right activists, argues that government should push policy that supports only families headed by mothers and fathers. “You can’t have a wealthy society if the family breaks down,” Santorum said.

Dionne says Santorum “is broadly right,” citing a study by the National Center for Children in Poverty covering “the 2005 – 09 period,” that “5 percent of married family households were poor at some point within a given year, compared with 28.8 percent of single-parent households. For 2010, the figures were 8.4 percent and 39.6 percent, respectively.”

But instead of going off on a tangent about how government recognition of marriage for gay couples will render straight marriages meaningless, as Santorum often does, Dionne says “Liberals should acknowledge, as Obama has, that strengthening the family is vital to economic justice. Conservatives should acknowledge that economic justice is vital to strengthening families.”

And Dionne points to some work in this area by Harry Holzer, a professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, and Peter Edelman, an ACS Board member and longtime advocate for tackling poverty in America.

In a 2006 book published by the Urban Institute, Holzer, the late Paul Offner, and Edelman (pictured) tackle “the thorny challenge of getting ‘disconnected’ young men back in school or the workforce.”

The book, Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men, focuses on African American and Hispanic men “because young women have made more progress in recent years and their prospects have been spotlighted in discussions of welfare reform and other social changes,” a press statement about the publication says.

“Only half of African-American men ages 16 – 24 who are not in school are working,” the book notes, and that “Ten percent of young African-American men and 9 percent of young Hispanic men are disconnected from school and work for a year or more. Including incarcerated populations, the rates rise to 17 and 12 percent, respectively.”

The authors go beyond providing what they believe are the reasons for the rising unemployment rates of African-American and Hispanic men, which have only been exacerbated by the Great Recession. They note policy, which they say should be advanced by politicians to turn these numbers around. The authors write, “Education attainment should be accompanied by efforts boosting occupational skills, early work experience, and labor market contacts among high school students who are unlikely to attend college.”

Citing “the critical issue of economic inequality,” as fueling Occupy Wall Street protests, The New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof offers some stark “factoids” on the breadth of the situation.  

Kristof notes:

The 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans.

The top 1 percent of Americans possess more wealth than the entire 90 percent.

In the Bush expansion from 2002 to 2007, 65 percent of economic gains went to the richest 1 percent.

The columnist citing a study mentioned in a book by Robert H. Frank, argues that countries with little economic growth are ones where economic inequality has been allowed to get out of hand.

Instead of belittling the protestors, as this hedge fund manager did anonymously in an interview with The Times, it would be more constructive to start answering the right-wing economic policies, which helped bring about the Great Recession, with bold initiatives, some of which have already been laid out by people like Holzer and Edelman.