In 2014, the state must turn its attention to poverty. In both human and economic terms, it's gotten too expensive.
Nearly 50 years ago, on Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the bold initiative that would become known as the War on Poverty. A half-century later many of its signature programs — Medicare and Medicaid, VISTA, Head Start, food stamps — are still part of our social infrastructure.
But while these programs have helped many people, they have not ended poverty, as Mr. Johnson hoped. After an expenditure of, by one estimate, nearly $15 trillion, the "war" is a stalemate, a holding action. The national poverty rate of 15 percent in 2012 (46.8 million people) is about where it was in 1965.
In Connecticut, the poverty rate began to rise before the recession, going from 7.5 percent in 2002 to a current estimate of 10.7 percent ( 372,000 people) living below the poverty line, which is $23,492 for a family of four. Another 10 percent of residents live at or below 200 percent of the line.
Though poverty has grown markedly in the suburbs, it is still heavily concentrated in the cities. Hartford, according to the U.S. Census' most recent American Community Survey, has an estimated 38 percent of residents and 53 percent of children living in poverty.
This is frustrating on moral and economic grounds. We aspire to be a fair and egalitarian society that provides all of its citizens with basic sustenance and the chance to get ahead. Yet many are struggling, some desperately.
Meanwhile, government and private philanthropy are spending billions of dollars on programs and services to either help the poor or pay for the consequences of poverty.
While it is impossible to put an exact number on it, billions of dollars in state spending — portions of the budgets for social services, courts, public defenders, prisons, public health, mental health and addiction services, labor and education — are rooted in poverty.
In addition, federal funds administered by community action agencies and private philanthropy bring tens of millions more to the anti-poverty effort.
While this money provides a safety net and help for many people, shouldn't we be doing better?
If eliminating poverty were easy, we wouldn't be approaching this anniversary. It's sometimes politically expedient to blame the poor for not getting ahead. Recent research suggests that living in poverty — facing the daily stress of finding food, clothing, heat and shelter — makes it all the more difficult to finish school or train for a job.
Institutional efforts to end poverty haven't met with consistent success, either. For example, in 2004 the legislature formed a Child Poverty and Prevention Council with the goal of reducing child poverty by 50 percent over 10 years. Since then, the percentage of children living in poverty has risen from 10.1 to 14.8 percent, an increase approaching 50 percent.
This is connected both to the recession and to Connecticut's stagnant job growth from 1990 to 2010, during which the state had the worst job creation record in the country, according to the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis.
Yet there are good things happening. "Jobs Funnels" set up around the state since 1999 have gotten 2,800 workers into the construction trades in the last 14 years. The earned income tax credit has been a huge help in getting people out of poverty. The state's investment in education and training should bear fruit. There are innovations around the country, such as subsidized work programs and financial empowerment centers, that teach people how to manage money, build assets and not fall back into poverty.
The recent innovation that might best suit Connecticut's situation is called "collective impact," in which all the players, directed by a "backbone" organization, decide on a common agenda and measurements, and then work together.
Getting all the state and local agencies and nonprofits on the same page — some are moving in this direction — would be a good start.
This is first on The Courant's agenda list for the state for 2014. Tomorrow: What the city of Hartford needs to do.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun