The Conversation: Poverty and women’s economic health

01/12/2014 12:00 AM

01/10/2014 10:51 PM

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Do you see women within the next generation attaining the sorts of rights that Maria Shriver's report highlights, including equal pay for equal work and the right to earn paid sick leave? If so, why? And if not, why? To write a letter, go to sacbee.com/sendletter. Or comment on our Facebook page at facebook.com/sacramentobee.

Maria Shriver admits it in the first line of her latest Shriver Report, which deals with low-income women living on the edge of poverty: As the daughter of War on Poverty crusader Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, she has never been on the brink herself.

She hasn’t had to apply for food stamps or had her life upended when her car breaks down. She doesn’t have to choose between feeding her children and paying the rent.

But clearly inculcated with the fervor of her father, who was President Lyndon Johnson’s architect in the War on Poverty, and her mother, who fought for the intellectually disabled, Shriver has teamed with the nonpartisan Center for American Progress to produce an ambitious, powerful look at the plight of low-income women and their children.

Right at the start, Shriver shares this fact: Of the 100 million plus living on or over the brink of poverty in America, almost 70 percent are women and children depending on them. That is nearly 42 million women and more than 28 million children.

In the report, Shriver quickly issues her call to arms: “We must recognize that our government programs, business practices, educational system and media messages don’t take into account a fundamental truth: This nation cannot have sustained economic prosperity and well-being until women’s new, central role is recognized and women’s economic health” becomes a standard shaping “common-sense policies and priorities for the 21st century.”

This is the third foray by Shriver, 58, the former first lady of California and a television journalist, into assessing women’s evolving status in the United States.

In 2009, her first Shriver Report looked at women’s increasing presence in the workplace and its effect on society, and the following year her second report examined women’s role as caregivers.

In this third report, entitled “A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink,” Shriver and the Center for American Progress offer an almost overwhelming tsunami of data and essays, including some by the famous and powerful, including Hilary Rodham Clinton, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz and Coca-Cola Chairman Muhtar Kent.

These statistics and essays, spread throughout the report’s 413 pages, outline the grim world faced by women and their children at the bottom of society’s rungs: It is all there in stark numbers – the low pay, the lack of affordable child care, the absence of paid sick leave, the dearth of education, the early, unintended pregnancies, and the crying need for the public and private sectors, along with committed individuals, to throw themselves into the battle on behalf of low-income women and their children.

The stakes, the report argues, could not be higher. America’s very prosperity and success in the globalized world depends on the country’s ability to meet this challenge.

In an interview, Shriver said it was easy to criticize the report’s goals by saying the money is not there for such a comprehensive restructuring of women’s role in society, but she said she expects the goals eventually will be achieved. “I don’t have a timetable,” she added, “but anything can be done if the political will is there.” She said she viewed the report as a means of igniting discussion, outrage and action over the plight of low-income women and their families.

Along with calls for concrete steps to ease women’s burdens – including proposals for equal pay, earned paid sick leave and greater government funding for key family support programs, the report offers two especially interesting nuggets. One proposal advocates what is called “two-generation” approaches to lifting low-income mothers and their children together to a higher economic tier where they can find a better life through economic stability. This strategy, the report states, is based on “research that demonstrates the strong connection between a mother’s education and her child’s success in school.”

The other nugget is Shriver’s unveiling of a Shriver Corps – described as a three-year “pilot national service project dedicated to building pathways to prosperity for low-income women and families by simplifying and modernizing the process by which they access benefits, training and other services.”

The corps will be funded with $600,000 – two-thirds of that money from the federal government’s VISTA program and one-third from the nonprofit organization LIFT – that will finance as many as 20 corps employees in six targeted areas – Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. (LIFT was founded by two Yale students in 1998 with the goal of ending poverty; its student volunteers work in those same six areas to lift low-income people on many fronts, including housing and health care.)

The corps project is scheduled to get underway this spring, and Shriver is meeting with a bipartisan group of congressional representatives in the coming week to deliver the report personally and discuss its implications. (Funding for her Shriver Report work is about $1 million annually, with major donors including the Ford Foundation, Wells Fargo Foundation, AARP and JPMorgan Chase Foundation.)

Shriver’s report is being issued today – four days after the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s call for a War on Poverty. Though critics rail at the War on Poverty’s cost, defenders point out that many of its key programs still function today, providing invaluable help to millions of Americans.

Martha J. Bailey, an associate professor of economics at the University of Michigan, told me that the War on Poverty has cost $15 trillion and that the number of poor in America has dwindled by 4 percentage points – to 15 percent – since 1964. She added, however, that any complete assessment of the War on Poverty must recognize the tremendous, life-enhancing value of many of its programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps, federal financial aid to school districts and expanded food stamp offerings.

In the wake of the release of the Shriver Report, there likely will be considerable debate about whether its proposals stand any real chance of success in an era far removed from the time when Johnson launched his War on Poverty.

There are, of course, great hurdles in Shriver’s way. Her own report depicts the enormity of the challenge. Here are some impediments touched on in its pages:

•  “The fully government-funded public high school diploma has been replaced by the much more costly college degree as a passport to the middle class.” This observation rings painfully true – underlining how an attempted climb upward into the middle class becomes all the steeper for those on the bottom.
•  The Head Start program, begun by Sargent Shriver 50 years ago, is hailed widely as an enormous success. As a teen, I saw the program’s power, working with children as a volunteer one summer in South Central Los Angeles. Behind the success, though, the report notes this fact: “Due to budget restraints, Head Start serves only half of eligible 4-year-olds and about 5 percent of eligible infants and toddlers.”
•  One of the report’s essayists, Angela Blackwell, writes: “Sadly, in America, one’s address has become a proxy for opportunity. ... To level the playing field, investments and policies must be aimed at rebuilding distressed communities” to provide “access to strong schools, good jobs, reliable transportation and other vital services.” So where, one must ask, do the dollars come from to make this vision a reality?
•  Washington, D.C., is described by the report’s editors, Olivia Morgan and Karen Skelton, in their essay as “increasingly sclerotic and dysfunctional” when they tell of the need to go outside Congress’ walls to establish a Shriver Corps.

There is no benefit I have found, though, from dwelling on darkness.

Stanford sociology professor David Grusky, who is director of the university’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, told me: “Often we rule out things as politically impossible and in so doing they of course become impossible. Sometimes I don’t like a discussion about what is politically feasible because it takes off the table things that might be possible.

“A lot of people thought gay marriage was an impossibility. So you never know when a breakthrough may happen. The national conversation on issues of inequality is shifting. Issues of inequality were off the table, and now those issues dominate our discussion. ... There are lots of reasons Shriver might strike a cord in a way that before wasn’t possible.”

One strong ray of light is that respected polls show support by the American public for many of the issues that Shriver advocates. An example from the report: Ninety percent of Americans, including 88 percent of Republicans, support “ensuring that women get equal pay for equal work in order to raise wages for working women and families.”

With public sentiment this strong, the fight in the years to come over these issues will reveal whether those in elected office are listening, and if they are not, whether they will be voted out of office and replaced with champions of a better life for low-income women.

Summing up her vision, Shriver speaks of the challenge with words that are reminiscent of the rhetoric of her uncle, President John F. Kennedy. “We can re-ignite the American dream,” she writes. “ ... I believe individuals really can change the world. If we harness our imagination, our innovation, and our optimism, we can do this. And we can do it now.”

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