We are a wealthy state in a wealthy nation, and yet one out of every seven people in Massachusetts lives in poverty. And even that doesn’t tell the true story. The number is 29% among African Americans here; 40% among Latinos. Regionally, it’s 21% in New Bedford; in Springfield, it’s 28%; and in Holyoke, 41% of kids under 18 live in poverty.
There have been times in America when the public sentiment has been awoken to what it means to be poor, and when strong, progressive leaders rallied the political will to fight that enemy. Jacob Riis, an immigrant Dutchman, gave Americans a crystal clear window on sweathouses and abuses in his 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, leading to child labor and worker rights laws that we now take for granted. We shouldn’t. These were hard-fought battles, relying on leaders who cared.
We took big steps, too, in the wake of the Great Depression, which birthed Social Security, and in the contentious 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society created Medicare, Medicaid, and the War on Poverty.
And then… what? Somehow we lost the focus. Hunger, homelessness, and poverty, itself, left the front pages and abandoned the front seats in American discourse. They became chronic, more hidden, part of the background. Maybe even, sad to say, accepted.
And so, poverty worsened. Disparities soared. In 1976, the wealthiest 1% of Americans owned 19.9% of the nation’s wealth; in 2010 that had increased to 35.4%, Massachusetts was not spared. Boston continues to have the fourth-largest income inequality among major cities.
Beneath these numbing statistics lies real, vicious, human suffering. “Poverty” means not enough food, insecure housing, unaffordable medications, no day care, high levels of exposure to environmental toxins and violence. It means watching even the small luxuries of life and recreation through a TV screen, knowing you won’t have any of that. For many, it means gnawing despair and self-doubt. If it were I, I am sure it would mean seething resentment that I could not have my share of the American dream. And who knows where that resentment might lead me?
And I would hear the Tea Party pundits blame me – those who believe wealth is a sign of merit and poverty just the inevitable outcome of the social Darwinian struggle – survival of the fittest. “Are you poor? Too bad. Good luck.”
It is time to change all that, and it begins with deciding to do so. It is rededication time; time to put poverty on the docket, name it, and end it. In the nation as a whole, deadlocked in Washington and victim of irresponsible political theatrics, that is not likely now. But, in Massachusetts, it can be: we’re the first state to make health care a human right; the first state with marriage equality; the most ambitious state in the fight against global warming. Let’s now be the first state that decides that poverty among us is neither moral nor inevitable and that on our watch, poverty will lose.
Ending the vicious cycle of poverty is not only right and just, but it also makes economic sense. Poverty breeds hopelessness, and hopelessness drives addiction, homelessness, and crime. If fewer people were poor today, we’d all have safer communities tomorrow. In the long run, we would be spending fewer of our precious public resources on prisons and public assistance. And more people would have more disposable income to help stimulate our economy.
Let’s start with kids. I propose that Massachusetts end childhood poverty within the next ten years – by 2024.
It will take three assets, along with the strongest possible progressive leadership. First, we need will. We need to see the faces and hear the voices of those among us for whom the “Great Recession” wasn’t new at all – who have lived in it every year of their lives. We need to remind ourselves as a total community that the term “Commonwealth” is not an empty word; it’s a promise.
Second, we need ideas – from within the state and from others. New Zealand, for example, a country with just about the same population as Massachusetts, announced four years ago its plan to end poverty among children, and set out a framework for action for almost every agency in government and in full partnership with private sector stakeholders. We can begin with that plan as a draft, and then make it ours, adapting it to our local resources, history, and sensibilities.
Third, we need execution – the same day-to-day executive and managerial attention that marks every grand and successful organization effort. As Governor, I will place the end of childhood poverty on my personal agenda every single day, insisting on the highest levels of engagement of the entire state government, full cooperation with every willing town and city, and participation of the private sector, with its resources, ingenuity, and, quite frankly, self-interest in a Commonwealth that works for everybody. We will have a public dashboard, read it constantly, and watch the metrics head where they belong: to zero.
Sound ambitious? You bet! But I am certain, based on 30 years of work to achieve previously unimagined breakthroughs in safety, reliability, and quality in health care, the end of childhood poverty can be within our reach. So now, let’s reach.