A renewed war on poverty like that of the 1960s may not be politically feasible or even the best way to address the problems of the poor and near poor. However, we cannot ignore the situation. There are effective solutions we should pursue – like strengthening work supports and in-kind benefits such as the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit, Medicaid and the SNAP program – which have succeeded in keeping millions of Americans healthier, out of poverty and free of hunger. Government and the private sector must zealously focus on reducing unemployment.
To start to address the problem of low-wage work, it also is time to increase the minimum wage, which – at $7.25 an hour – is 40 percent less in inflation-adjusted terms than it was in 1968. The private sector has an important role to play in these efforts. Business and government should work together to develop better pathways for occupational mobility. Employers should improve job quality by providing a living wage and essential benefits such as sick leave. Many employers are leaders in this effort, and consumers should support those businesses that provide their workers with decent wages, benefits, and opportunities for advancement.
But none of these efforts can bear fruit unless we squarely face what is not working in our economy. The problems of the poor and near poor – children, seniors, people with disabilities, workers, and unemployed people – must not be swept under the rug. Political leaders of both parties must confront this problem, which cries out for bipartisan solutions. We need a national discussion of poverty and low-wage work so that our nation's leaders can take real action to empower and improve the lives of millions living, struggling and cycling in and out of poverty; that's an act that would make America more virtuous and economically strong.