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The Scarlet & Black

Jodie Levin-Epstein speaks on domestic poverty

What is poverty, what does it look like?
Poverty means not being able to participate fully in society, and that comes from not being able to have an ordinary [life] where you can go without worrying about getting the essentials, and it also means you are not included in the rest of society.

Why is looking at poverty in the U.S. important?
Well, poverty is a relative experience, and in a country as rich as ours to have kids dying because of lack of dental care drives me crazy.

What’s the best action government can take to combat poverty and do we have to be clear we are reducing poverty?
I think if you can show that something you’ve done has reduced poverty it can add support. In terms of what is the single most important thing for government to do, that’s tricky. I would say for those unable to work it ought to be up to the government to provide the resources those people need to be out of poverty and it’s shocking that we don’t do that. For people able to work we need to see wages continue to grow and we need a proper stepping-stone for wages to increase. It ought to be a fundamental government principle that anyone who works full time is not poor.

After looking at your research paper from 2008, I was wondering if there is one take home message or something everyone should really consider when they read it?
I need to update it. I think 20 states, across the country, have a state government that has really grabbed the bull by the horn in deciding that they need to pay attention to poverty and the lack of opportunity and to come up with some ideas for how to address, and for this I am pumped. It begins with a few small steps that can really make a big difference.

You discuss having a ‘safety net,’ what do you mean by that?
We need to reconfigure our welfare policy, so that it is really truly about getting people out of poverty and that will entail creating specific rules and regulations for government.

Given how many people are already at work, how do you think we can alter income?
Well, I think raising wages is the hardest thing to accomplish, so although we should revisit minimum wage we need to provide in-work benefits like income tax credit, child health credit and all the ones that were boosted by the recovery act. Those are the tax income strategies that need to be bolstered, I think in addition we need to encourage the whole education component, to not only build skills but make sure children and adults are taken care of so we can have a labor base that can tackle the kind of jobs we have.
One theory that is in respect to jobs, that the jobs in the middle are disappearing, there is a cluster of growth on the low end and there will continue to be growth on the high end.

How do you feel about the role of unions to help combat the problems in the work force?
I am all for them, though I am not saying that all unions are without flaw. I do believe that unionization is a vital tool for enhancing the possibility for wage increases.

Should we look at other countries for an example to how to tackle poverty?
I think it really valuable for the U.S. to learn lessons from state developments, which is what typically happens here and particularly in the last decade. The federal government has waited for the state to come up with ideas in an array of areas, for example if we look at Massachusetts’ health care, and if you look at the minimum wage that only happened because many states suggested it.

You discussed the fact that children raised in poor families have significantly smaller vocabularies, and also have several other developmental problems in their ability to learn, and the fact that as a society we will pay now or later, can you explain this point to me again?
The fact that the stress of living in poverty changes how the brain grows and it means that kids struggle to have a working memory, by the time they’re in elementary school its no wonder they can’t do those school books. Everybody thinks that it is because they aren’t practicing enough, or their parents aren’t reading to them, and I’m sure that if they read it would be better. The fact that stress causes synapses not to happen, that’s a lot for a parent to overcome, and that provides a cost to us as that kid may drop out of school and don’t contribute to society.
We tend to leave a family in poverty, but then put the kid in day care, but that’s going to be expensive too. So why not help the family through wage subsidies and take that stress away.

Are there any policies or changes that have been taken in this area since you have graduated that stand out?
I mean in the last couple of years what Obama has done has been impressive for instance the health care bill was humongous and the stimulus package was essential.

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