Demonstrators organized by the National Poor People's Campaign rally Monday, June 21, 2021 at Halifax Mall in Raleigh. Credit: Travis Long / The News & Observer via AP

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David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children.

Poverty is not just a problem to be solved.

In the United States, it’s a policy choice that we make.

For most of my career — as a journalist, in government and in politics — I have covered or advocated for programs that I believed would help to “solve” the problem that is poverty.

Whether it was making Earned Income Tax Credit refundable so low-income working families could get cash back from the government or advocating for the expansion of Medicaid — which provides access to health care — or for food stamps —which helps keep people from going hungry — the central idea was that poverty is something that exists and that the way to tackle it was to develop and implement a series of policies that would lessen its terrible impact.

Last week, I listened to a fascinating episode of The Ezra Klein Show on the New York Times website. Klein had a conversation with economist Betsey Stevenson.

Stevenson served as the chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor and on the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama and is now a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan.

The podcast covered a lot of territory, from overblown concerns about inflation and the current “Take this job and shove it” economy, where an unprecedented number of employees — burned out and used up from a year of pandemic work — are considering big changes in their career, to the particular challenges women face in the workforce.

One of the takeaways from the discussion was that in a rich country like the United States, the fact that families live in poverty is an active policy choice that we make.

The low national minimum wage; the implicit connection between employment and health care for most working-age people; the lack of affordable, high quality child care; no national policies on paid family and medical leave all contribute to an economy that constrains prices at great personal cost to millions of workers.

 While discussing the move by at least 25 governors to prematurely end increased unemployment payments that were part of the national COVID-19 response, Stevenson tells the story of a student who asked her if it was appropriate that the threat of starvation is the motivation for someone to take a job that, while deemed essential just a few months ago, doesn’t pay a living wage.

 The discussion made it clear: poverty is a policy choice.

 And it’s a policy choice with clear winners and losers.

 For middle- and upper-income consumers, poverty policies help to hold down the costs of products, which can translate into a higher standard of living and more wealth.

 For the super-wealthy, it translates into fortunes that are simply unimaginable. So unimaginable, in fact, that two of the richest people on the planet feel so little constraint that they are actually racing to space.

 For low-income families, it’s a bleak paycheck-to-paycheck existence made tolerable only by the dream that maybe the next generation can do better.

 The fact that families — including children — live in poverty is not something that just happens in the United States. It is the predictable outcome of our policies choices. And when we opt for the status quo we contribute to the problem.

 There are a host of different policies that could reverse course, but first that we have to stop conflating poverty with morality. Being poor isn’t a sin. It’s the result of specific policies.

 Where to start? Raise the national minimum wage, expand access to high-quality, affordable health care, subsidize child care and implement paid family medical leave. And, for me, I’d replace the hodge-podge of programs like SNAP and TANF with a guaranteed basic income ( evidence suggests it works better).

 Once we recognize that poverty is a policy choice, it’s easier to identify the different choices that are necessary to end it.


David Farmer, Opinion columnist

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist....