Nearly 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” Speaking before a joint session of Congress, he said, “It will not be a short or easy struggle … but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

Despite the bold rhetoric and some successes, poverty hasn’t gone away. In 2011, 49.7 million — or 16.1 percent — of Americans lived below the poverty line — the highest poverty rate since the 1960s. In Michigan, 17.5 percent of residents of all ages and 24.6 percent of children lived below the poverty level. For some perspective, compare these numbers to the national unemployment rate of 7.9 percent.

Several factors drive the high poverty rates. According to the 2013 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book “low wages, unemployment and cuts in social programs” contribute to increased child poverty in michigan. The problems are similar on a national level. According to Georgetown University Law Prof. Peter Edelman, low-wage jobs, single-parent households, reductions in welfare, and race and gender issues have impeded progress on reducing poverty.

President Barack Obama has taken some steps towards helping Americans living in poverty. Last year, Obama’s campaign pointed out that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act kept millions of people out of poverty, giving “a significant tax cut to low-income families with children, and support(ing) crucial unemployment insurance for those who were hit hardest.” The White House has also pointed out that the Affordable Care Act will greatly improve millions of low-income Americans’ access to affordable health coverage.

However, a White House official admitted a few weeks ago that “the president hasn’t brought poverty to the forefront of his agenda.” Meizhu Lui, director emeritus of the Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative, added “the president hardly talks about the poor at all.”

So we know that poverty is a problem. Here’s a more basic question: Why should we care? We go to an elite public university — why should we spend any of our valuable time helping poor people? After all, they’re just lazy “takers,” right?

First of all, high poverty hurts the economy we’ll be entering after we graduate. “When children grow up in poverty, they’re somewhat more likely than non-poor children to have low earnings as adults, which in turn reflects lower workforce productivity,” according to research from the Center of American Progress. If fewer children grow up in poverty, more children can get a valuable education and develop the high-level analytical and abstract reasoning skills that will make them more likely to prosper in the new knowledge-based economy. When we have more people doing jobs that computers can’t do, innovation can grow and our economy will grow with it.

Secondly, many of Michigan’s impoverished children could be future students of our University if we improve their basic living conditions. Poverty forces many children to attend lower-quality schools or worsens their academic performance due to stress at home. If living conditions improve for poor children in Michigan, it’s entirely possible that more of them would be admitted to the University on academic merit, making a positive contribution to the community.

On a broader level, we have a moral obligation to help other human beings who are in need. A PBS Frontline documentary in November provided a heartbreaking account of several families that are trying as hard as they possibly can to have a decent life and give their children a chance to succeed — yet no matter how hard they try, poverty continues to be a huge challenge to overcome. When people try so hard and still can’t get ahead, they deserve our help.

There are several ways we can help. We can volunteer. We can review the facts and the policies being proposed to solve the problem and hold our lawmakers accountable. At the very least, we can “just start talking about it,” as advocates for the poor have called for Obama to do. Particularly after the 2012 election, politicians are paying attention to our generation’s opinions and advocacy efforts. As Millenials, we should raise awareness of this issue everywhere we can and show that we’re united in our concern.

Michigan’s poor residents are part of our larger Michigan family. Poor Americans are part of our larger American family. And Michigan’s poor children might be part of our University family someday. Family members look out for each other — we should never forget that.

Michael Spaeth can be reached at micspa@umich.edu.

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