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Vulnerable US families lose whoever wins the White House

Nov 7th, 2012 | By | Category: Featured Article, Front Page Layout

By Jean Eltringham, Erin Kavanagh-Hall, and Melissa Wastney

WHETHER the winner of the US election is Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, the new President will not be able to avoid the escalating problem of poverty.

Obama’s social assistance policies may face funding cuts as early as January next year, while Romney has said his emphasis will be on balancing the books, rather than social policies.

NewsWire looked at the current situation for homeless families and single mothers in the US, and checked in with Wellington political commentators on how the US compares with New Zealand in terms of inequality.

Homeless families stand to lose out

President Barack Obama’s plans to end child and youth homelessness by 2020 could be hampered by funding cuts, while Republican candidate Mitt Romney has yet to address the needs of low-income families.

Automatic spending cuts, which aim to reduce the US budget deficit by $US1.2 trillion over the next 10 , are due to take effect in January 2013.

Advocates for homeless children expect the cuts on discretionary spending to adversely affect homeless access to housing, social services, public health, education, and job training.

Romney’s focus is on stabilising the US economy rather than dealing with social issues.

In February this year, he said he was “not concerned about the very poor” and has recently said it’s not “his job to be concerned” about the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay taxes.

Romney referred to these people as “victims” who believe they are entitled to housing, health care, and food and said they will not learn to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives”  if the state gets involved.

On the other hand, the Obama administration launched its Opening Doors programme in 2010 which aimed to end homelessness by 2020.

While there has been a drop in chronic homelessness, homeless advocate Beth McCoullogh says “the face of homelessness is changing”.

“More specifically, it’s getting younger,” says Ms McCullough, who monitors the provision of educational necessities to homeless children.

Between 2007 and 2011, the rate of homelessness among children increased by a third, according to a report by the National Center of Family Homelessness.

One factor in accurately gauging the number of homeless children is that different state agencies apply different criteria.
For example, the Department of Education describes a homeless child as one who doesn’t have a permanent home, including those living in pay-by-week motels and on the couches of parents’ friends.

According to The National Center on Family Homelessness, families experiencing homelessness are typically comprised of a mother in her late 20s with two children, with 42% of children in homeless families being six years old or less.

Romney dismissive of single parents

Single parenting is an integral aspect of the poverty debate, as more than half of all child poverty is linked to single parent families.

Mitt Romney startled many with his claim that,  for a safer America, marriage was more effective than gun control.

Meanwhile, much has been made in the debate about Obama’s own single parent upbringing.

However, there is no denying the worrying situation for single parent families in modern America.

More than 85% of single parents are mothers, and poverty is widespread and severe among this group.  In addition, single mother poverty rates are much higher in the US than in other highincome countries.

“Even if you don’t care about kids and all you care about is your own well-being, then you ought to be concerned,” says Patrick McCarthy, president of the Annie E Casey Foundation, a philanthropic charity for at-risk families based in Baltimore, Maryland.

“We’ve got to think about what kind of state, what kind of country we can expect to have if we are not investing in the success of our children.”

Writing for the business magazine Forbes, journalist Bryce Covert points out that single mothers are more likely to be stuck in low-paid work, and many earn less than half of what a married couple could earn.

US can learn lessons from NZ – intern

New Zealand may have appalling levels of child poverty – but the US could learn a few tricks from us, says one political commentator.

Parliament intern Matt Garmondsway says the US, currently home to 46.2 million people living in poverty, could stand to benefit from a social welfare system similar to New Zealand’s.

“New Zealand has shown that by having a welfare state that targets assistance at an individual level, there is more efficiency and those who need the help usually get it,” says Mr Garmondsway, who is doing work experience with the Labour Party.

“That’s not to say that our system is perfect but it does work much better than the current American model, because it looks at the long-term issues not short-term fixes.

BETTER OFF: NZ may have inequality problems, but we’re better off than the US

He also says Americans can benefit from New Zealand’s partnerships between the public and private sectors aimed at reducing inequality.

“Rather than debating the role of government in society to the point of hysteria, Kiwis tend to choose a mixed model where we try different avenues until we find the best model,” he says.

“Even if that means the state taking a back seat role or getting heavily involved in an issue, the proof is in the pudding and by all accounts we are more successful at it than they are by quite a distance.

“I mean, how many homeless people do you see along Lambton Quay? Certainly not hundreds like there are in Dallas, Los Angeles, or New York.”

Mr Garmondsway says he feels President Barack Obama has done a decent job for the less fortunate through actions such as increasing benefits to match inflation and rising food costs, providing citizenship pathways to illegal migrants and increasing tertiary education grants.

Conversely, he does not believe a victory by Mitt Romney would benefit vulnerable Americans, owing to Romney’s personal views on poverty and the  the Republican Part ideology.

“We are likely to see an increase in poverty in the United States under a President Romney and private charities being swamped by the poor in their millions,” he says.

“[There will be] cuts to entitlement programmes where older Americans are forced to pay more for healthcare but receive less in return, cuts to food stamps and benefits potentially being frozen, shifting the management of Medicaid to states which overall will have very little impact on the amount of support people can access.”

However, former Young National member Matthew Beveridge says programmes that are successful in New Zealand may not be applicable to the US, given its complex government structure.

There may be programmes that NZ has that would work in the US. However the issue in the US is the number of levels that government is spread over,” says Mr Beveridge.

“City, county, state and federal [governments] all undertake social policy projects. It has to be remembered the US is not a single entity but a group of states that have united in a federal union.

“New Zealand is leading the way with whole-of-government approaches to social policy, which I think is a good thing.”

Mr Beveridge says he sees the greatest difference between Obama and Romney’s solutions is that Obama seeks to increase government intervention to assist vulnerable people, whereas Romney plans to boost the US economy overall.

“I think Romney’s greatest contribution to helping the poor will be to lift the economic performance of the US, thus helping lift the living standards of everyone.”

He believes a greater push for both for personal responsibility  in both US and New Zealand citizens will help combat poverty.

“Benefits should be there to help people in their time of need. It shouldn’t become a long term solution. But this is an issue that faces pretty much all Western nations.”

Top pic-

Pic of homeless family with signs:

Single mother and child:

NZ child poverty (with pram):

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