JCRC forum focuses on poverty

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

The Community Against Poverty (CAP) Initiative of the Jewish Community Relations Council last week hosted a Forum on Poverty, featuring a keynote address by Professor Mark Rank of Washington University and a panel of experts who discussed the problem of poverty and responded to questions by a broad-based media panel.

More than 175 people attended the event at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. But the two major invitees were not present: Attorney General Jay Nixon, Democrat and U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulsof, Republican, candidates to be the next governor of Missouri. Attendees were urged to send letters to each candidate and others seeking office in November, asking them to commit to making fighting poverty a specific priority goal if elected.

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“Unanswered Questions: Poverty and Political Solutions,” was the theme of the program, which opened with words of welcome and introductory remarks by Phyllis Markus, chair of the JCRC’s Community Against Poverty Initiative, an interfaith, interracial partnership convened by the JCRC and co-sponsored by a range of non-profit organizations.

“As we look across the country today, we see a nation where millions of people lack the basic necessities of life, and where the futures of far too many young people are clouded by economic and social policies that have failed to promote a shared prosperity,” Markus said. “Clearly, our current economy is not working for everyone. This is evidenced by rising unemployment, the subprime mortgage crisis, widening inequality and skyrocketing food, energy and healthcare prices. A greater and greater number of Americans are feeling the impact of a system that does not allow all to achieve the American dream.”

The keynote address was delivered by Mark R. Rank, the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare at Washington University in St. Louis, who is widely recognized as one of the foremost experts and speakers in the country on issues of poverty, inequality and social justice. Rank is the author of Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America, and One Nation, Undverprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All. His research demonstrated for the first time that a majority of Americans will experience poverty and will used a social safety net program at some time during their lives.

“Let me begin with a simple question,” Rank said, “Why does the United States have the highest rate of poverty in the industrialized world? I believe that the way we have historically been talking about poverty has been wrong, based on the idea that laziness and lack of motivation causes poverty. These tired stereotypes are not true. Rather, it is a function of bad timing of events that actually happen relatively often in the course of our lives. These include losing a job, having one’s working hours or benefits reduced, families splitting up, developing a serious medical problem or growing old.”

Rank said the first step in dealing with poverty is to change the way people perceive poverty.

” Much hinges on how we view this issue. Again, the fundamental reasons for poverty are not laziness or the refusal of people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Poverty results from a structural problem, with our economy producing more and more low-level jobs at places which lack health care or benefits. Too many of our neighborhoods have been blighted. Our social policies have failed to provide basic needs, such as universal health care, child care and a decent level of social services..”

Rank said poverty is considerably more widespread than generally thoguht.

“Poverty is really an issue about ‘us’ rather than about ‘them,” Rank said. “The vast majority of Americans can expect to encounter at least one year of living below the official poverty line. Research indicates that 75 percent of the U.S. population will spend some amount of time in poverty or near poverty between the ages of 20 and 75.”

“Furthermore,” Rank states, “two-thirds of Americans will rely on a social-support program such as food stamps for economic help at some point during their working years. Contrary to popular opinion, in other words, poverty is a mainstream event experienced by the majority of Americans. For most of us, the question is not if we will experience poverty, but when.”

At the conclusion of his remarks, Rank joined a panel of non-profit, academic and government officials, including State Rep. Rachel Storch, D-64th District; Bob Quinn, executive director of the Missouri Association of Social Welfare ande Dan Buck, chief executive officer of the St. Patrick’s Center in St. Louis.

Gilbert Bailon, editor of the Editorial Page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, served as moderator of a media panel made up of representives of the media sponsors of the event: John Carlton of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Sandra Jordan of the St. Louis American; Jim Kirchherr of KETC/Channel 9; Larry Levin, Publisher/CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Light and Jim Rygelski of the St. Louis Review.

Carlton asked the panel to address the problem of uninsured children, which has increased by 45 percent in recent years.

Rachel Storch said, “That’s a fight I’ve been waging for the past four years, since Gov. (Matt) Blunt cut health care in Missouri. The problem is that we have a set amount of money within which to work, and until there is a major change in the makeup of the Missouri legislature, we cannot get the votes needed to restore the cuts. We also could use more health care experts among our legislators to join the few who are already members to lend their expertise to our deliberations.”

Dan Buck said, “We often all too quickly turn to the government to fix the problem. We need to incentivize health care in the private sector, to let employers help their employees in the private sector. Not all of our solutions come from the government.”

Professor Rank added, “I think health care is a basic human right. The solution lies in a mix of both government and private sector action; it needs to be a hybrid.”

Bob Quinn agreed. “It would be a great tragedy if we get the idea that it is one or the other, public or private. It must be a combination of both in order to address the problem and we should not get polarized over this issue.”

Larry Levin asked the panel to address the problem of providing quality early childhood education in our communities. “An open question is how legislators and advocates can be effective in causing Missouri and St. Louis legislators to prioritize these efforts to effect maximum funding. What do you like or not like about our present early childhood education?”

Storch said, “I’d like to see us start early childhood education not at age three, but at zero up. Again, unfortunately, we have not had the votes to pass it, and it would require a large amount of money to fund it.”

In addition to fielding additional questions from the audience, the panel and attendees heard remarks and perspectives from clergy representing the Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Roman Catholic communities, including Reverend Dr. David Greenhaw, Rabbi Andrea Goldstein; Imam Muhamed Hasic and Reverend Richard Creason, who provided the respectives of their faith communities on the vital importance of combatting poverty.

Phyllis Markus, chair of the JCRC’s CAP Program, closed the event with a “call to action,” including urging all attendees to sign and send letters to Attorney General Jay Nixon and Congrsssman Kenny Hulshof, the Democratic and Republican candidates to be the next governor of Missouri, who were unable to attend the event due to schedule conflicts. Markus read out excerpts of the letter, including, “It is not OK for 742,000 Missourians to live in poverty! It is not OK for 729,000 Missourians to lack health care coverage; and it is not OK for Missourians’ median income to contine to decline!”

“We cannot be a healthy state without healthy, prosperous citizens,” Markus continued. You have been asking for our vote. We are now asking you to commit to plans and actions that will significantly reduce the number of poor in Missouri. Confronting poverty in Missouri is both an economic and a moral imperative.”