In his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, President Barack Obama never used the word “poor” and only used the word “poverty” once, which was in the context of fighting “extreme poverty” globally, in emphasizing the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
The previous week, most Americans were shocked by a report from the Southern Education Foundation suggesting that low-income students were now the majority in America’s public schools. What the report actually found was that the majority of America’s school children were eligible to receive free or reduced price lunches at their schools. Some of the eligible poor students are living in poverty, others are at near-poverty levels and the rest go to schools with high concentrations of poor students. So, maybe that explains why this report didn’t influence the president to change his State of the Union to mention the word poor, or poverty.
Nonetheless, the dire situation of America’s children means we must move to a new accounting framework. Economists have favored real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita-the value of all goods and services produced by a country adjusted for population size and inflation. For economists, this figure marks what is possible for a nation, since it measures the resources available to address problems-whether an outbreak of Ebola or the need to build roads and bridges or educate a nation.
In January 1964, the real GDP per capita of the United States stood at $19,233, when President Lyndon B. Johnson, in his State of the Union address, told America that:
This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.
I added emphasis to the “richest nation on earth,” because the United States real GDP per capita was the largest at the time. And, so, as President Johnson said, “we can afford” to defeat poverty.
This January, the real GDP per capita for the United States is more than $50,805. Given the poverty level for a family of four is $23,850, it is a real puzzle how, with output per person growing by $31,572, poverty was not eradicated. Clearly the fruits of growth didn’t spread very wide.
Instead, we began 2013 with 19.9 percent of America’s children living in poverty. Sadly, 7.6 percent of America’s children live in a household below the poverty line, where at least one family member works year-round full-time; a clear testament to the effects of falling and stagnant wages for all workers. Falling wages have pushed the rings of the middle-income ladder on top of the collapsing rungs of the falling minimum wage and the working poor. But there was no mention of the word “poor” or ending poverty, though clearly “we can afford” to end it.
The silver lining in the story on the high share of American children getting subsidized lunches is that it is a sign we can get it: that the wealth of the United States can solve some problems-it can help feed our children. And it shows a use of the “commons,” in the sense that many of our states are “commonwealths”-as the U.S. Constitution puts it to “promote the general welfare.”
But with so many of our children poor, near poor and in school systems with high concentrations of poor children, the “general welfare” becomes even more important. Unless we act, too many of our children will be priced out of the education our nation needs them to attain to sustain our economy and run our complex defense systems, or add to our cultural riches or cure our sick.
We need a national accounting that measures what the nation needs. And with so many poor children, the deficits we face if we let people be “priced out” will not be close.
Instead, what we are now hearing from Congress is that the richest nation on earth that sent people safely into outer space, launched the interstate highway system and found the vaccine to polio when its per capita GDP was less than half its current size, cannot now afford to educate its children.
My paternal grandmother grew up in Fayette County, Iowa, at the turn of the past century. The motto of West Union High of Fayette in 1919 was: Impossible is un-American. Maybe that is why Congress has such a low rating?
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