Hurricane Katrina forced the nation to face the reality of poverty. President Bush acknowledged this, saying, “We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.” Unfortunately, in the five months since Katrina, students have been disappointed by the lack of “bold action” to combat poverty. But as students, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to go beyond mere criticism of these failures and to take part in constructive efforts to attack poverty on a structural level.
One opportunity to tackle poverty is the Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax credit for low-income working families. As a family earns more money, the size of the credit increases, plateaus and finally decreases. The federal EITC, which was first enacted under the Ford Administration and expanded during the Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations, applies to families with incomes up to $37,000, with the maximum credit going to families with two children or more earning between $10,350 to $14,520 a year. Eighteen states have enacted state EITCs to complement the federal program. Like the federal government, states have enacted EITCs under Republican and Democratic administrations, exhibiting the bipartisan appeal of the legislation.
Connecticut needs to join the 18 states that have already committed to poverty reduction. All of our neighbors, including every other state in New England as well as New York, have passed an EITC. Furthermore, as the wealthiest state in the nation, and the state with the fastest-growing rate of inequality between its wealthiest and poorest citizens, Connecticut has both a strong need for the credit and the resources to pay for it.
Other states that have enacted EITCs have found three benefits. First, the EITC is the most effective anti-poverty program in the country. In 2002, the federal EITC lifted 4.9 million people, including 2.7 million children, out of poverty. The EITC is effective because it helps the growing number of young families with children who work 40, 50 or even 60 hours a week and still cannot support their families.
Second, the EITC is an efficient economic stimulus. Low-wage workers have the highest average propensity to consume and the highest propensity to spend their money locally. In other words, low-wage workers aren’t putting their money in banks or buying European luxury cars — they are buying food and other necessities at their local grocery store. It’s precisely because the EITC recipients re-invest the money back into their local economies that many business owners are excited about, not scared of, the EITC.
Third, the EITC rewards work. The EITC is only awarded to people who work. Opponents to anti-poverty programs complain that such programs are antithetical to America’s ethos of personal responsibility. We agree that responsibility is an important value. However, if Connecticut citizens have a responsibility to work, the government has a responsibility to ensure that every working Connecticut citizen has a job that pays enough to support a family. What kind of message is the government sending about the value it places on work when it allows families who have met their responsibility to work not to have sustainable wages?
Connecticut Students for Just Taxation, a coalition of student organizations from across the state that includes many organizations from Yale such as the Yale College Democrats, Project Opportunity, the New Haven Action-Fund and Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, is now working to pass an EITC. We are fortunate to be working with Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, a longtime advocate of the legislation, as well as with Connecticut Voices for Children and the Connecticut Association of Human Services. We have begun traveling to Hartford to meet with legislators, and working with the state legislature’s Human Services Committee to pass a bill so that a floor vote can be held. Simultaneously, we are encouraging the New Haven Board of Aldermen to pass a resolution expressing their support for a state EITC. Still, students face an uphill battle in convincing the legislature to pass an EITC. We, as students, have no money to invest in political campaigns, we have no paid lobbyists and we do not have years of political connections.
Our greatest asset is the strength of our belief in two simple principles. First, no American should work a full-time job and still live in poverty. Second, just as it is an individual’s responsibility to work and a government’s responsibility not to allow those who work to live in poverty, it is our responsibility, as students, not just to criticize, but to take action to combat the problems we see before us.
Isaiah Andrews is a freshman in Trumbull College. Eric Kafka is a sophomore is Timothy Dwight College. Andrews is the Outreach Director of Project Opportunity. Kafka is the campaigns coordinator for the Yale College Democrats.