How to help families lift themselves out of poverty

By:  Rep. Mark Takano
The Press Enterprise

The U.S. unemployment rate is at its lowest point since March 2008, the stock market is up roughly 50 percent over the past five years, and the U.S. this summer hit a record 65 consecutive months of private-sector job growth.

The obvious conclusion is: The American economy is thriving. For many, the reality is that we still have a persistent and serious poverty problem, especially in the Inland Empire.

Last week, I released a report that found more than 392,000 people in Riverside County are living in poverty, including one in four children. Even as the national economy grows, the number of children and families living in deep poverty has been on the rise. Our regional poverty rate is a full percentage point higher today than it was in 2010, when the economy was still shaking from the impact of the Great Recession.

Our situation is not unique. An estimated 47 million Americans, or 15 percent of this country, are living below the poverty line. An economic recovery that leaves so many members of our community behind is not a recovery at all. We must do more to help families lift themselves out of poverty.

The good news is that we are equipped to do it. There are a series of programs already in place to support poor families – such as Medicaid, tax credits for low-income workers, and food assistance – that have proven effective. CalFRESH, California’s food assistance program, has kept more than 800,000 people out of poverty, including 417,000 children.

The challenge is many poverty programs are consistently underfunded and cannot achieve their intended goals. For example, Section 8 housing assistance, which is designed to help impoverished families find a safe place to live, only has funding for 8,500 families, while more than 20,000 families are on the waiting list. The direct cash assistance we give needy families in California increased just $74 from July 1996 to July 2014. When adjusted for inflation, that translates to a 28 percent decline in purchasing value over that time.

The result is that a single parent of two, working full time, is likely to fall $589 short every month of what they need to cover basic expenses. And when poor people begin to spiral into debt, there are plenty of predatory businesses to keep them there – such as payday lenders and expensive check cashing services.

It’s not time to invent new programs; it’s time to invest in making the existing ones work better. There are three things we can do tomorrow to reduce the number of people living in poverty in our community.

First, we need to fully fund Section 8 housing assistance to ensure more needy families have access to safe and affordable housing. Children who change schools due to a lack of housing perform worse than their peers, and families who receive assistance move less and live in better conditions.

Second, we should fully fund child-care subsidies for working families. Through the Child Care and Development Block Grant and the At-Risk Child Care program, families can get help to pay for the high cost of childcare. But only one in six children who are eligible under federal standards for assistance actually receive it. Providing quality, affordable childcare for working parents would ensure that no one is forced to forfeit their job to stay home with their child.

Finally, we need to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Even when the minimum wage becomes $10 next year, it will not change the fact that a person can work full time in this country and not make a living wage. This should not be the case in a nation that claims to value and reward hard work. Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by passing the Pay Workers a Living Wage Act, which I co-sponsored in Congress, and indexing it for inflation, would directly help millions of this country’s poorest.

These solutions are not simple or easy. They require us to make tough choices and shift our priorities. But tomorrow morning more than 140,000 children in Riverside County will wake up under the cloud of poverty. If that doesn’t move us to act, then we have a much bigger problem than our economy.