Lawmakers turn focus to race and poverty

Forum urges new proposals to solve a national problem

December 10, 2006|By leticia linn | leticia linn,Capital News Service

Black and poverty are too often synonymous, and the nation needs new policies to defeat poverty for everyone, said participants at the Poverty, Race and Policy Forum organized by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, exhorted the organization and the audience to work on new proposals to solve the problem.

"It is not good enough to have a report; it's how you bring it to life and make it work," Cummings said. A document from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the centerpiece of the forum's discussion Wednesday, said 37 million Americans are living in poverty. And it showed that by 2004, poverty rates for blacks had risen to 24.7 percent.

The report also said Hurricane Katrina brought attention to the relationship between race and poverty. It suggested promoting policy initiatives on reducing poverty and inequality, ensuring access to health insurance and guaranteeing comprehensive child care assistance, among other solutions.

Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus told "very interesting stories" about how they rose from poor families to becoming members of Congress, Cummings said.

Cummings talked about his parents - who had little education and moved from South Carolina to Baltimore "because they wanted their children to do well" - and the value they gave to his education.

Cummings never moved from Baltimore, he said, because he wanted to show black children that they could do whatever they want in the future.

In Maryland, 8.8 percent of residents live in poverty. The state is 29 percent black, according to the U.S. Census.

"There is so much that government can do, and there is so much that we need to do for ourselves," Cummings said. Congressmen were there to take "the things that you are talking about here and turn them into legislation," he said, and audience members need to work for their communities.

Minutes before Cummings' speech, Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, said that representatives should work together to put poverty on the House Democratic Caucus agenda.

Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park, said poor families' access to education is not the only way to approach poverty.

Solutions should involve other issues, he said, including welfare, the criminal justice system, affordable housing, health care access and the impact of immigration on small business.

Walters also advocated a return to targeted-tax policy so that more revenue would come from the wealthy instead of from poor families.

"I don't know if the Democrats will have the guts" to go over all those issues, he said.

Cheryl Miller, associate professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said many programs seek to solve the problems of the poor, and that should not change. "We can't keep reinventing the wheel," Miller said.

But most programs fail to reach all those needing assistance, she said.

The interim president and chief executive officer of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Elsie Scott, said she thought poverty would be a priority given what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Now that several black members of Congress are going to be in top positions during the next Congress, Scott said, her group is hoping for their help in working out solutions.

"We want to keep the issue alive," she said.

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