One week ago today, former Senator and vice-presidential nominee John Edwards came to Yale to address an issue too often overlooked by Americans. To a packed audience of students and New Haven citizens, Edwards described the issue of poverty as one of the great moral challenges of our time. His advice was simple and to the point: to take the window of opportunity before us — a window that was opened just weeks ago by the devastating hurricanes in the Gulf — and build a national movement to right the wrongs of race and class which it so painfully exposed. Think what you may about Edwards and his presumed aspirations in politics, the rhetoric was more than high-flung; it was long overdue.
Consider the issue of poverty in our city and state. One out of every four New Haven citizens lives in poverty today. One out of three New Haven youth under the age of 18 is poor. Some 4,000 of our neighbors, over the course of a given year, do not have a place to call home. And that is only as far as federal statistics are concerned.
With Connecticut’s cost of living far above the national mean and the rise in the federal poverty line fast outpaced by inflation (poverty is adjusted based on the cost of food alone), thousands more New Haven residents — and hundreds of thousands statewide — are effectively poor. Even as the national poverty rate declined during the 1990s, that of Connecticut, the nation’s second wealthiest state, more than doubled from three to seven percent. It has continued to rise over the last five years. These statistics on poverty itself only begin to tell the story.
Unemployment, under-employment and the lack of decent-paying jobs at the low- and semi-skilled levels represent growing challenges for a city in the midst of continued economic transition. Nearly one in 10 New Haven citizens was unemployed in 2003, compared with six percent in Connecticut and across the United States. In New Haven’s poorest communities, more than one in four young people aged 16 to 24 who sought employment were unable to find it — contributing greatly to poverty and delinquency among youth.
In the area of housing, like employment, the poor are often left behind. A single parent earning minimum wage today would have to work over 100 hours per week in order to afford a typical two-bedroom rental in New Haven, paying 30 percent of income in rent. With 11 percent of the city’s total housing stock uninhabitable due to blight and an estimated affordable housing need of 14,000 units, thousands of New Haven citizens are chronically poor due to lack of access to affordable homes.
Sobering as these problems seem, we as concerned students can nonetheless play a meaningful role. Project Opportunity, in response to Edwards’ challenge, aims to project that role beyond the realm of service, in which so many Yalies excel, and into the public policy domain. In the coming weeks, students at Yale will unveil amendments to the New Haven living wage, launch a campaign for just taxation for Connecticut’s working poor, and develop policy solutions to the issues of child poverty, homelessness and affordable housing in our city.
The living wage campaign, developed by the students of New Haven Action and supported by Project Opportunity at Yale, aims to meaningfully enhance New Haven’s existing living wage by increasing the minimum hourly wage the city pays to its low-income employees to $11.10 plus health benefits, and extending that benefit to major private-sector recipients of taxpayer-supported contracts and funds.
Moving beyond New Haven, students will bring the issue of poverty to our state capitol in Hartford by introducing an Earned Income Tax Credit for Connecticut in the 2006 General Assembly session. The EITC, a federal policy now emulated by 18 states, provides tax relief for millions of our country’s working poor and is credited with lifting some four million citizens out of poverty in 2002 alone.
These two vital and attainable public policy solutions — and those to follow around homelessness, affordable housing and childhood poverty in the months ahead — represent a meaningful and practical beginning to the campaign against poverty in America that our generation must face. Indeed, no progressive change has been won in America without the voice and energy of the youth. We can think of no more pressing national concern, no cause more worthy of support, than the deep and growing tragedy of poverty in our city and state. We invite concerned students to join this effort today.
Dara Lind ’09, Benjamin Staub ’06 and Dan Weeks ’06 are members of Project Opportunity.