Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: An anti-poverty progress report

A year in the making, Mayor Bill Bell’s anti-poverty initiative is revving up for its test run in Northeast Central Durham, where some of the city’s toughest census blocks have scoffed at planners for decades. And while much of the initiative is same-old, same-old, other aspects reveal innovative thinking.

As one who has seen government fail time and again to make headway against generational poverty – Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society is the gold standard in that regard – I don’t hold much hope that Bell’s ambitious project will swim against the current.

Nonetheless, it’s usually better to do something instead of nothing, so let’s look at some of the proposals from the initiative’s six task forces and assign them a letter grade.

Why give custodial savings accounts a D? Because this is the tragedy of American compassion at work.

The money would come from private sources, and at first blush it looks like a win-win. But such a program limited to one school is inherently unfair to low-income families in other parts of Durham.

And for me, here’s the kicker: Although parents would be encouraged to donate $100 a year to their child’s (more likely, children’s) account, the program itself puts yet another remove between parents and parenting – a privately funded entitlement at risk of great variability.

Better to guide parents toward responsible financial stewardship. Helping those who can benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit won’t bring every recipient out of poverty, but it can go a long way. Working parents with three or more children can get a federal subsidy up to $6,143 – that’s found money.

It’s also money that parents can direct toward the education of their offspring as they see fit, instead of having somebody else make decisions for them.

The EITC has been around since 1975, and its outlays are exceeded only by the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps). In fact, the Tax Policy Center estimates that in 2015 some 26 million households will receive $60 billion in lower taxes and refunds.

This program is so beneficial that State Treasurer Janet Cowell took to the streets of Census Tract 10.01 last month to help promote it. If Bill Bell’s initiative accomplishes nothing else, this alone would make it a success.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.