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Originally published Sunday, February 5, 2012 at 5:45 PM

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How safe is the safety net for the nation's poor?

The U.S. demonizes the poor while other developed countries cut their poverty rates.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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After Robert Plotnick spoke the other night, a man in the audience asked, "Was Jesus right?"

Well, of course he was. In this case the subject was poverty and Plotnick had spent 10 minutes in front of a couple of charts explaining that the country hasn't gotten far since President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964.

Plotnick is a professor of public affairs at the University of Washington and was one of the presenters in a round-table on campus last week, The Changing Face of American Poverty.

Jesus is quoted telling his disciples, "The poor we have with us always." Plotnick said we could have a lot fewer poor people if we did as good a job fighting poverty as most other developed countries.

Since the early 1970s the poverty rate has risen and fallen with economic cycles. Census Bureau data show the poverty rate in 2010 at 15 percent and the number of poor Americans at 46.2 million, a record.

Here's how poverty has gotten into the news recently. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called President Obama a "food-stamp president" and offered to explain to black folks why we should demand jobs rather than food stamps.

Facts are irrelevant to that kind of thinking, but just for the record, most of that aid goes to the working poor, people whose jobs don't pay enough to support a family. Black people are disproportionately represented in that group, but most people receiving government help are white.

Gingrich's opponent, and the wealthiest man in the race, Mitt Romney caused a flap last week by saying he doesn't worry about the poor because they have a safety net.

But given the impact of so much poverty on every aspect of our communities, the rest of us might want to worry just a bit about the adequacy of that net.

The event was part of ongoing 50th-anniversary celebration of the UW's Evans School of Public Affairs. Constance Rice, of Casey Family Programs, moderated.

There was some mention of the changing face of poverty, more young people, more single-family households, but mostly the evening was about constants that ought to be addressed.

Plotnick was followed by three colleagues from the Evans School, Marcia Meyers, Rachel Garshick Kleit and Marieka Klawitter. Each spoke about one aspect of poverty and ways it might be addressed. (A podcast of the event is available at evans.washington.edu.)

Meyers talked about child care. Who's caring for children in poor working families? Many times it's relatives who could be working themselves if they weren't tending children. About half the time families pay for child care, but that poses several problems. The cost takes a significant percentage of the income of poor parents, and even then they can't afford top-tier care. At the lower end of the care spectrum are workers who earn little, are not well educated and have no specialized training. The children who need the most nurturing get the least, and the ones who are most privileged get the most, which furthers inequality.

Rachel Garshick Kleit addressed housing. "Homelessness is just really the most visible housing problem. It is not the only housing problem, nor is it the most prevalent housing problem that affects low-income families."

Some families spend more than half their income on housing, she said, including about 80 percent of very low-income households in Seattle. We can do more to make housing more affordable and available.

Marieka Klawitter, addressed asset building as an anti-poverty strategy. Government already has asset-building policies, but they mostly benefit middle- and upper-income families. There are tax breaks that help people save for college or retirement, and interest deductions for home loans. And of course we've heard a lot lately about lower taxes on interest income that benefits Romney and other wealthy people.

Poverty has persisted, but not because it is biblically ordained, Plotnick said. "It's because our policies have failed to be effective. Other countries have done much better." We need to follow their example.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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