Md. governor should signal support for poverty solutions on the table

Fifty-two years after President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared a "War on Poverty," Gov. Larry Hogan is preparing to enter the fray. The governor recently announced a commission, led by his lieutenant governor, to look at "Two Generation Family Security." Multi-generational poverty has been an intransigent issue for decades and still warrants our attention. However, a nine-month, state-based study has dubious value when some of the solutions are already right in front of us — they just require leadership and political will.

We know that the solutions will require state and federal investment. By definition, people experiencing poverty lack financial resources. With the changing nature of work — the greatest employment growth is in the service sector, often in part-time roles — many Marylanders are working hard and still struggling to make ends meet through no fault of their own. Decades of research shows that providing non-financial support is important to help people get ahead and climb the economic ladder, but nothing beats financial assistance.

We also know that these vital public investments have many short and long-term benefits for families, communities and the economy. In Minnesota — where over the last few years the governor has made a strong commitment to investing in education and other vital state services, raised the minimum wage and adopted tax policies that ask everyone to pay their fair share — they are experiencing robust economic growth and state budget surpluses. Maryland would be wise to take a similar approach.

Among the things we could do right now is make certain that low-income children have access to meals, especially nutritious school meals. For example, the Maryland Cares for Kids Act would support families struggling to pay for reduced-price school meals. These are the kids whose families are at 185 percent of the federal poverty line, like the single mom of two kids who makes $37,296 a year — far less than required to afford the basics in Maryland. Helping those children get school meals will help their family's budget while also fueling their health and education — protecting the health of Maryland's future workforce. There are 45,000 Maryland students who would benefit from this bill.

And the Hunger-Free Schools Act lets high-poverty schools all over the state utilize federal reimbursement to feed hungry kids. It's being used in more than a dozen jurisdictions from Howard and Montgomery counties to Garrett and Washington counties, doesn't cost the state a dime, and has passed both houses of the legislature unanimously. The governor should quickly signal his support for this bill.

The governor could also give a boost to those Marylanders who work hard but are still struggling to get by on low wages by supporting the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) expansion and meaningful paid sick leave legislation.

Maryland's EITC gives a much-deserved break to thousands of Marylanders who work hard but still struggle to get by on low wages. However, it leaves behind low-income young people just getting a start in the workforce and workers who aren't raising children. Legislation before the General Assembly would make Maryland's EITC work better, reducing taxes for more than 355,000 working Marylanders and putting them on a path to greater financial stability. We don't need a new study to know this policy works; there is ample evidence from Maryland and around the country that the EITC helps families and boosts the economy.

Likewise, the paid sick leave bill that the governor has threatened to veto is based on proven successful policies from other parts of the country, including right next door in Washington, D.C. It just makes sense to ensure that workers can take time off work when they or a child is sick without worrying about how they are going to keep the heat on or put the next meal on the table.

Passing strong earned sick days legislation will benefit all Marylanders. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that a healthier workforce leads to greater worker productivity due both to workers recovering faster when they stay home and the reduced spread of illness in the workplace — a good thing for businesses and our economy.

This doesn't necessarily mean that the governor shouldn't form a commission focused on economic security, but families experiencing poverty shouldn't have to keep waiting when there are proven policies at hand. The challenge isn't finding new solutions, although new solutions are always welcome. It's about using the solutions that are already on our doorstep as effectively and as efficiently as possible.

Benjamin Orr (borr@mdeconomy.or) is executive director of the Maryland Center on Economic Policy. Michael J. Wilson (mjwilson@mdhungersolutions.org) is director of Maryland Hunger Solutions.

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