Richard Iannuzzi: In The Grip Of Poverty, Inequality

Nov 22, 2013

In his new book, So Rich, So Poor, former Clinton and Kennedy policy advisor Peter Edelman writes that poverty and inequality stem from the same root causes.  They cannot be separated – certainly not in America today.

The facts are frightening: In America, more than 46 million children live at or below the poverty line, 15 million more than in the year 2000.  Children make up 24 percent of the U.S. population, yet they represent 36 percent of those living in poverty.

New York, the Empire State, is the premiere epicenter of commerce and business, yet it is also an epicenter of both child poverty and income inequality. Nearly half of the state’s 2.6 million schoolchildren – some 1.4 million kids – are poor enough to qualify for a free- or reduced-price lunch.  Some 315,000 children are without health insurance.  And, nearly 50,000 New York City children are homeless.

Poverty is not just an urban issue or one that only impacts people of color. In wide expanses of upstate New York, white children in rural communities and small cities suffer the same devastating effects of poverty.

The impact of poverty is lasting. Children who live in poverty are far less likely to succeed in the classroom and graduate from high school.  Indeed, 94 percent of students in affluent communities graduate, but only 65 percent of poor children earn a diploma. Over their lifetimes they will earn tens of thousands of dollars less than their wealthier peers—continuing the cycle of poverty into the next generation.

New York’s elected leaders who declare that we must improve the quality of our public schools in order to make our students more competitive must understand that to do so real steps are needed to address child poverty and the inequality that exists in school funding.

Albany cut $2.7 billion from schools during the recession.  Today, some 70 percent of school districts are operating with less state aid than in 2008-09.

While the wealthiest 100 districts spend on average over $27,000 per student… the poorest 100 can only spend roughly $19,000 per student. That’s a huge difference –and one made worse by a horrific property tax cap. Thus, wealthy districts are able to provide, not only a more enriching education program, but a more robust safety net for struggling students as well.

For teachers, health care workers and other public-sector employees, the shrinking middle class and growth in poverty are at the core of the many challenges they encounter.  The impact of poverty and inequality is not offered as an excuse, but as the reality they face every day.

Economic policy, deregulation and the current tax structure have played major roles in widening the wealth gap and hollowing out the middle class.  The number of super-rich at one end… and the number of those living in poverty at the other… are both growing.

Change will require political will.  Poverty and inequality are not naturally occurring events but rather products of our national and state economic policies. 

To change this, we must give voice to the voiceless—one of the fundamental roles of unions, a role we are morally obligated—and willing—to pursue.

As we begin a season of reflection and thanksgiving, we hope that those with the power to address poverty and inequality will hear those voices—and we must hold them accountable for doing so.

Richard C. Iannuzzi is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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