Poverty Reduction Expert Challenges Alabama
January 20, 2010 | The Montgomery Advertiser | Link to article
A national poverty reduction expert gave the state kudos for its success in taking steps to help Alabama's impoverished, but she also issued the new Alabama Commission to Reduce Poverty a big challenge: change how the state thinks about poverty.
"We should refuse to accept the perception that Alabama is always going to be poor," said Jodie Levin-Epstein, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy. "I believe the over-arching work of this commission is to not make it acceptable that Alabama is going to be at the bottom when it comes to poverty."
Levin-Epstein praised Alabama for being a leader in providing health insurance to children and its successes in pre-kindergarten programs and raising the threshold for which the state taxes income. But she said the state has to dig deeper if it wants to do more than just ameliorate poverty, and it has to get more people on board to address the issue.
"Alabama's gap between the richest people and the poorest people is the second largest in the country," she said. "The household incomes of the top 1 percent is 13 and a half times as large as the poorest 20 percent."
Levin-Epstein suggested that it's time to pick a target in poverty and set a timeline for meeting a goal such as reducing the number of children in poverty. She also said it is time to invite the business community into the discussion of poverty and how to eradicate it in Alabama.
"The business community must be a part of this solution," she said. "They need to know that if we allow poverty to continue in the nation -- in this state -- it has an economic consequence."
Lukata Mjumbe, executive director of the Community Action Association of Alabama, said that he liked the idea of having a targeted approach that people could support and where they could possibly see real victories.
"We need victories," he said. "If we set some attainable goals people could start to have those 'aha moments' and know that this is something that we can do."
Levin-Epstein encouraged the commission to see itself as a watchdog for protecting the wages and jobs of the working poor, which she said, makes up the majority of poor people in Alabama.
She also said the commission should make sure Alabama is drawing down all available assistance to the state and testing state leaders when they reject policies designed to help the impoverished.
"Alabama is one of six states that has income tax on working families that are in severe poverty," she said. "That's just taking people who are already poor and making them poorer."
Levin-Epstein said that it is time for the state to revisit the taxable income threshold and finally get the state sales tax on food removed.
"Nobody should assume that we've always got to be poor," she said. "People have to understand that we are all in this together."
State Rep. Patricia Todd, chairwoman of the commission, said Levin-Epstein gave the commission a lot to think about and a way to move forward. But she said it's going to be tough. Only a handful of people turned out for the commission's meeting, and she was the only legislator appointed to the 22-member commission that showed up and stayed for the entire meeting.
Kristina Scott, executive director of the Alabama Poverty Project, said she believes that doing a better job of telling the stories of the state's poor and broadening the coalition of people who work on poverty issues could help change some minds at the State House.
"This is a multifaceted issue," she said. "Poverty affects each one of us."
Alabama is one of 20 states that has established a commission on poverty. The state Legislature passed a bill making what was then a temporary task force into a permanent commission during the 2009 legislative session. The commission will submit its first report to lawmakers next Thursday.