Response to poverty: invest in the building blocks of a better economy

2013-08-22T09:00:00Z 2013-08-22T14:36:06Z Response to poverty: invest in the building blocks of a better economyBy U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The series on poverty the Arizona Daily Star just finished running struck a chord with me, and I’d like to share what I think the federal government is doing right and wrong to address the issue.

Many people understand that job creation investments, when made wisely, are an effective way to reduce poverty. Congress should be making more of those investments. The era of austerity, when lawmakers experimented with cutting everything in sight no matter the human consequences, has to end. It hasn’t created jobs; it hasn’t led to a stronger workforce, and it certainly hasn’t brought anyone out of poverty. Punishing the poor is a rhetorical trick, not a serious policy idea, and it should stop now.

What does this mean in practice? It means the cuts that have already been made — to nutrition assistance, to Head Start, to teacher salaries — should be reversed, and the ones in the pipeline should be canceled immediately.

We should start treating our economy like an engine of progress again rather than a playground for dangerous and unpopular theories. We should focus on the growing income gap between the very wealthy and everyone else in this country. We should, above all, think of jobs first and foremost rather than how to get more money to the top of the economic ladder.

Our attitude has to change as much as our laws. Poverty, in the vast majority of cases, is not the result of laziness. We can’t keep treating it as something to be ashamed of. It’s a consequence of bad policies that need fixing, not a mark of failure. Americans work harder than just about anyone else on Earth – longer hours, fewer vacation days, less overtime pay, even less maternity leave. And what do we have to show for it? Our skewed incentive structure rewards being rich more than it rewards honest effort.

Don’t believe me? The richest 1 percent of Americans currently control 39 percent of the country’s wealth. Some people don’t see that as a drain on the economy. In fact, it puts terrible downward pressure on innovation. When so much money is concentrated in so few hands, how much is left for everyone else? How can our poorer neighbors hope to achieve economic independence when so much is taken by so few, who then demand tax cuts no matter what shape the country’s in?

The lack of a sustainable living wage in this country is compounded by cuts we’ve already made to nutrition programs, education, after-school care, low-income health measures and a host of other efforts that should be improved, not eliminated.

The idea that we should make the lives of poor Americans as difficult and miserable as possible to motivate them to try harder is a cruel fantasy that has no place in a modern democracy. Punishing the less fortunate to teach them a lesson is simply not an acceptable, let alone realistic or effective, way to govern. Yet it’s what we’ve been doing, in various ways, for years.

We can debate the best way to invest in our economy. What we can’t debate any longer is whether any federal action is necessary. State and local budgets have been hit hard by the slow economy. The federal government exists specifically to provide a bulwark against hard times for the country. It’s an active participant in our daily lives.

No one who has seen the human face of poverty can honestly remain unmoved by its effects. When children suffer not because of mistakes but because of intentional policy decisions, something has gone very wrong in the wealthiest country on Earth.

This is not the best we can do as a state, as a country and as a society. From where we are now, we can start a serious reinvestment campaign in the building blocks of a better economy – roads, schools, renewable energy sources, better infrastructure and technology – or we can keep cutting taxes for the very rich and hope a few bits and pieces fall off the table for the rest of us.

It’s time to stop playing games, start paying Americans a living wage once and for all, and create the kinds of sustainable jobs that will really get this country moving again.

Neglect is the last thing our economy needs. So let’s get moving.

U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva represents Southern Arizona.

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