The War on Poverty: Struggle changes as society evolves

Nov 3, 2014

By Paul R. Pace, News staff

Social workers rolled up their collective sleeves and joined in making a difference when President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty 50 years ago.

Interviews with social workers targeting poverty alleviation today make it clear that just as society evolves, so do the challenges of poverty. However, they say giving up is not an option.

The widening gap

It is imperative that the social work profession seeks system-level approaches to alleviating poverty, said Michal Grinstein-Weiss, a national and international expert in social and economic mobility and an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work. She is also associate director at the Center for Social Development.

Grinstein-Weiss says progress has been made to mitigate severe poverty in the U.S. since the 1960s, through the creation of Medicare, Medicaid and increased funding for housing and food subsidy programs. But many battles remain, she said.

“What I find more troubling than the U.S. poverty rate — which measures the adequacy of income — is the increasingly widening gap in America between the resources held by the rich and those held by the poorest,” she said. “That gap has continued to grow since we began measuring net worth in the early 1980s. Last year, the top 10 percent of American families held 75 percent of the nation’s net worth — the bottom 50 percent held only 1.1 percent of it.”

There is also a pronounced gap between racial groups, Grinstein-Weiss said.  In 2013, white families held 90 percent of the net worth in the U.S, black families held 2.6 percent, and Hispanic families held 2.3 percent, she said.

“Access to financial resources — or lack of access — has consequences that reach into every aspect of an individual’s life and into subsequent generations,” she said.

Social workers have been developing innovative approaches to help lessen poverty levels, Grinstein-Weiss said, but the profession must also face increasingly complicated challenges.

“As advocates for vulnerable populations, social workers must continue to make contributions in the conversations surrounding poverty, and the profession must engage more actively in policy discussions,” she said.

There is good news to report. Grinstein-Weiss pointed out several policy proposals that have the potential to substantially improve the lives of low-income families, including the proposal to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and President Obama’s new retirement savings program, myRA.

In addition, the research by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is investigating ways to educate and protect low-income consumers and the Center for Social Development is conducting research on universal Child Development Accounts, which holds promise as a policy to help close the gap in net worth.

“It is critically important for social workers to engage in these discussions,” Grinstein-Weiss said. “In part, their involvement is needed to ensure that the human face of poverty is not overlooked.”

From the November 2014 NASW News. Read the full story here.