With poverty rates now highest in 50 years, America needs a poverty czar 

According to a newly released study, by the end of 2020, the United States experienced its sharpest rise in poverty rates in 50 years, leaving eight million more people nationwide in a state of poverty.  As we usher in a new Congressional session, perhaps America needs an anti-poverty czar who can serve as a key resource for addressing the growing poverty rates in our country.  Martin Luther King III issued a similar call for President Obama to appoint a poverty czar during his presidency.  Although this did not come to fruition, the need to end inequality and economic disparities has never wavered. Now there is a greater urgency for such a point person given the sharp increase in poverty during the pandemic.

During the pandemic in 2020, one in four households experienced food insecurity, creating some of our nation’s worst food insecurity rates in years. Although stimulus checks provided a bit of temporary relief for some, the large numbers of families who had to spend their stimulus checks to purchase basic essentials such as utilities, food, or housing represent a disturbing trend in America.  Some of these families were already living in poverty. Others were experiencing hard times inching closer to becoming impoverished.

The TV coverage of people lined up in cars waiting for hours to get food and other supplies during this pandemic brought back memories from my childhood. I recall my family’s embarrassment of waiting in line to get food from the local church to prepare a holiday dinner. To complicate matters, we lost our apartment because we could not afford to pay rent. In addition to being without food and shelter, I remember carrying the burden of wondering what others would think of us. Years later while working as a community health nurse in impoverished communities, I  realized that my family had been poor and living at the mercy of landlords and charitable organizations. In a country like ours, known for its wealth and abundance, no one should have to live like this.

Individuals lacking a college degree, those with low wage paying jobs as well as minority populations are more likely to fall into poverty. The increasing disinvestments in rural and urban communities and continued hardships with housing, employment, and education during this pandemic are examples that should spark a renewed interest in appointing a poverty czar. These harsh realities are a reminder of the inequities that continue to exist in our country.

The appointment of czars to address national priorities is not new. Throughout history, a number of presidents have appointed czars to help address issues including the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the banking and auto industry crisis, global warming, and cybersecurity threats, to name a few. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 was the chief cornerstone in waging war against poverty during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. This legislation led to Sargent Shriver’s appointment as the director of the war on poverty, also referred to as the poverty czar. Shriver became the chief architect of some of our country’s most notable programs focused on job training, early childhood education, and legal assistance for the economically disadvantaged.

Now more than ever, our nation needs a dedicated point person who can help tackle a problem that has plagued some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations for decades. We need a “poverty in all policies” approach to decision-making to mount a strategic war against poverty.  A poverty czar could help design and evaluate the diversity of federal programs, policies, and initiatives for their potential in reducing poverty in the United States. This is especially important in housing, labor, education, and health, all of which are strong predictors of economic vitality and overall wellbeing for individuals, families, and communities across the entire country.

I am heartened that the new Biden-Harris administration has identified poverty as a national priority. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has provided another glimpse of the increasing poverty rates in our country, America needs a poverty czar to help combat it. In keeping with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “There is nothing new about poverty. However, what is new is that we have new resources to get rid of it.” I hope that a poverty czar becomes one of those resources. 

Janice Phillips is a nurse and public policy advocate.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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