With nearly 30 years of experience in the field of children’s well-being, McCarthy assesses poverty in the U.S.
Dr. Patrick McCarthy, President Annie E. Casey Foundation
Tavis: Next year will be the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty. By any measure, not only has the war not been won, but we’re still losing battle after battle.
The persistence of poverty is an issue that ought to be front-and-center, it seems to me, in our public policy, but one that few politicians truly want to address.
Dr. Patrick McCarthy is president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization that’s taken a leadership role in finding solutions to what seems to be an intractable issue in this country.
He joins us now from Washington. Patrick McCarthy, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Dr. Patrick McCarthy: So happy to be with you, Tavis, good to see you.
Tavis: Let me start by asking why it is that with all of the numbers clearly indicating that poverty is persistent in this country, that in many ways it’s worsening in this country, why is it that we can’t seem to get a conversation, get traction on a real conversation about alleviating poverty in America?
McCarthy: I think as we think about our own growing up, we probably both heard a lot about opportunity in this country, and that if you worked hard or you studied hard, you did what you were told, you could get ahead.
I think that’s still a core value that we have as Americans. It’s very hard for Americans to hear that there are many fellow citizens and their children who in fact are in poverty. It’s hard to hear that, even as we struggle with the question of how do we keep folks on a path towards opportunity. It’s just very difficult for people to engage in that conversation, but we have to.
Tavis: Let me press you on that, Patrick, because it seems to me it’s not even so much about getting them comfortable with hearing it. You’re right; nobody wants to hear that kind of sad story, as it were.
But there are so many Americans now in the millions who are living this story, so it’s not about hearing about somebody else’s condition. If one out of two Americans is either in or near poverty, and again, the numbers tell the story, you look to your left or you look to your right or in your own family, you know somebody struggling with this.
So help me understand how it is that we can’t get a real conversation about it when this is not some foreign story, as it were.
McCarthy: No, I think you’re putting your finger on a really big issue here. The reality is that more and more families are falling behind, and we’re finding it harder and harder to keep up.
As a result, more and more children are growing up poor. Sixteen million children in this country are below the poverty line and as you say, there are many more who are close to the poverty line and living tough lives.
I do think that part of the issue is that there are major economic changes we’ve been going through for the last 30 years. We’ve certainly entered a world of global competition.
We have higher productivity, which brings the prices of our consumer goods down, but at the same time it means there are fewer jobs available than there used to be back when manufacturing and basic blue collar jobs could get you a middle class lifestyle.
That’s not happening anymore. So I think that part of the challenge is that even though we still talk about opportunity, we’ve sort of turned our face away from the realities that many of our fellow citizens are in the midst of.
Tavis: Let me take one of the points you’ve just raised now, Patrick, and ask your particular point of view on it, and more broadly, the work that Annie E. Casey is doing in this area. I’ll come back to children in just a second.
But on the issue of income inequality, what say you to us tonight, the nation, about how we address this issue of income inequality.
McCarthy: Well I think there’s a number of things that we have to do. Number one, we have to realize that we can’t survive as a country with 30 to 40 percent of our workforce and our potential sitting on the sidelines, and that’s what happens when you allow people to fall into poverty and not participate in the economy.
So we’ve got to address that. We also have to recognize that we can widen the path towards opportunity. We can build connections to education, we can invest in early education especially, make sure every child is on a path to success.
We can invest in skill development for their parents and get folks on the right path towards opportunity. However, if we pretend that this problem doesn’t exist, then the income inequality, the wealth inequality is just going to grow.
I think one of the most serious problems we have is that we’re starting to lose that sense that where you end up doesn’t depend on where you started out. Used to be a sense that no matter where you started out, you could be successful.
More and more people are now saying, gee, it’s going to be worse for my children going forward, rather than better. My folks always talked about making a better life for their kids, and now we’re hearing more and more that folks don’t believe in that anymore. That’s a huge challenge.
Tavis: So what do we say, then, to a nation that allows its children to surrender their life chances before they ever really know their life choices? I ask that question, Patrick, against the backdrop of this reality.
I was in Charlotte, North Carolina over the weekend giving a speech, keynoting an event, and this issue of poverty of course came up in my talk. I made note of the fact that we are now in Black America looking at the first generation of Black Americans who will not do as well as their parents.
I suspect that’s not just true inside of Black America, but I was saying to this overwhelmingly African American audience that our ancestors must be turning over in their graves after all the struggle and the sacrifice and the love and the service, that we’ve arrived at a place in America where the next generation of Black folk, even in the era of the first Black president, will not do as well as the preceding generation.
That is a damning indictment on what’s happened inside of Black America. So help me understand how a nation addresses this issue where kids, again, are being forced to surrender their life chances before they ever get around to knowing what their choices really are.
McCarthy: Yeah, you’re exactly on point, and there’s no simple answer, but I think there are a number of things that we can do to in fact respond to the challenges that we face.
Number one, we know that this is a two-generation strategy. If kids are going to be better off, their families have to be better off. So you’ve got to figure out ways to hook people up to jobs, make sure those jobs pay enough to support a family.
Make sure that where there’s need for additional income support, that we provide it for a hardworking, struggling family so they can get by. People want to send their kids to college; they want to own a home. They want to be successful.
So we’ve got to figure out ways to support them in those kinds of hopes and dreams, just exactly as you said.
At the same time, even as we invest in the parents, invest in the families, we’ve got to invest in the children. We know from the brain science, we know from lots of experience, that early education is absolutely critical to getting a young person on a path towards success.
We know that if a child is reading proficiently by the end of third grade they’ve got good odds of being successful for the rest of their lives, and if they’re not reading proficiently by the end of third grade, the odds against them are fairly high. So we’ve got to invest in that area as well.
Finally, we’ve got to have a safety net that works. We know that we’re in the midst of a lot of economic change, a lot of economic turmoil, and families are getting swept up in that.
So we’ve got to have an unemployment insurance system that works, earned income tax credit, child tax credit, healthcare, child care. These are all the basics that families need to survive in today’s world.
Tavis: I’m going to talk to Greg Kaufmann from “The Nation” magazine here in just a little bit. He’s one of the few writers who covers poverty week-in and week-out in this country, and I’ll get his thoughts on this.
But over the next four years, it seems to me, Patrick, we have a wonderful opportunity to really push this issue of poverty higher up on the American agenda. As you well know, in 2014 we’ll celebrate 50 years, as I said at the top of this conversation, we’ll celebrate 50 years since the beginning of Johnson’s war on poverty.
In 2018, we’ll commemorate 50 years since Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. It seems to me those are two wonderful bookends, between LBJ and MLK, between the war on poverty and King’s Poor People’s Campaign.
We’ve got four years in front of us now where if we use and exercise our agency we can start to push to get this conversation more dynamic about poverty in the country.
What that also means, though, is that next year there’s going to be a lot of politics played around the issue of the war on poverty and what it did and did not do 50 years later.
So give me some sense of what you think this debate is going to yield or not yield. Because certainly when we get to that point in 2014, there’s going to be a lot of commentary about what worked, what didn’t work, what we did right, what we did wrong. Again, a lot of politics is going to be played on this, I suspect.
McCarthy: I think that’s right, and I would hope that what we will do is actually look at the facts and not just get stuck on the rhetoric.
The reality is that much of the war on poverty was quite effective. Poverty dropped as a result of the war on poverty. People don’t seem to understand that, but that’s exactly what happened.
We also declared war on poverty among seniors. We invested in Social Security, we changed how Social Security works, we invested in Medicare, and as a result, poverty among seniors has dropped significantly as a result of the policy choices that were made in the ’60s.
So we in fact did accomplish a lot through the war on poverty. What’s important to realize as well is that over the last 20 years or so we’ve built a pretty strong evidence base for what works.
So now we have a much better sense of what the tools are that we need to bring to bear in taking on issues like poverty and building a path towards opportunity. We just have to use what we know and put it to work.
Tavis: If the data is there, Patrick, and the evidence is there, why can’t we get Washington to get serious about scaling up those things that do work?
McCarthy: Yeah, that’s a great question. Of course, Washington and all politics are driven by rhetoric and trying to show that you’ve got a better idea than your opponent.
Too often, that kind of rhetoric pushes out the facts and pushes out the data, which we need to lift up and pay attention to. I think that’s really the job of folks like you, frankly, Tavis, as well as myself.
We’ve got to push forward and say you know what? We know a lot more about what works and what we’re using. Let’s put it to work.
Tavis: Dr. Patrick McCarthy is the head of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, doing great work all across the nation, but they are headquartered in Baltimore. Patrick McCarthy, thank you for your work and good to have you on this program tonight. We’ll be talking, I’m sure, more than once over the next four years of this campaign.
McCarthy: Thanks so much, Tavis. Good to see you.
Tavis: You too.
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