Frank Stricker: New Book Wages War on Poverty
Frank Stricker’s first book, Why America Lost the War on Poverty - And How to Win It (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007) was released this fall. In it, the professor of history at California State University, Dominguez Hills examines the economic and social mores surrounding American poverty and policy from the 1950s to the present.
According to Stricker, the key to fighting poverty in the United States lies in the need to improve job opportunities. He cites the cycle whereby seemingly dead-end jobs, in terms of pay and benefits, contribute to an unwillingness to work.
“There is a small category in the Bureau of Labor Statistics for discouraged workers,” he says. “They’ve been turned away a lot or have gotten jobs where they don’t feel there is a progression by which they will move up. Scholars have studied certain local labor markets like the fast food industry in Harlem in the late 1990s. A lot of people don’t want to work in these jobs, or only will for a short time.
“My nephew worked in a fast food place, but he knew it would only be for the summer,” he notes. “But many working class people think, ‘This is going to be it.’”
He states that even those who are not considered poor by federal standards are insecure in their jobs due to the erratic nature of health benefits, shrinking pension plans, and lack of opportunities for career progression.
“We need to raise the minimum wage again,” he says. “The federal minimum wage is $5.85, and in California it’s $7.50. It’s still too low. We also need a universal health insurance system that would benefit the working poor. Many of the really poor have Medicaid, but those who are slightly above them would benefit from national healthcare.”
Stricker says that the approximately 80 percent of the population that lives above the poverty line needs to see the poor as “more us than them.”
“Twelve percent of the population now is poor, so one of eight people in America is poor according to government standards,” he says. “The federal government’s definition of poverty that a lot of scholars use is that a family of four with two kids lives on a gross annual income of $20,444. If your annual gross is $20,445, the government says you’re not poor, which to me is pathetic. This [scale] was developed in the 1960s and it’s never been changed, except slightly every year for inflation.”
Stricker thinks that the nation needs to make a decisive commitment to eradicate poverty or not, and then act accordingly.
“I would never tell anybody that we’re always going to have a certain amount of poverty and that there is no point to strive,” he says. “This isn’t the ultimate solution to poverty in America, but everyone has to work as hard as they can for themselves.”
Stricker, who has taught several courses on poverty in the interdisciplinary studies program, has discovered that although students can be fiercely divided in their views on how to deal with poverty in America, they share a strong sense of justice when it comes to opposing the exploitation of employees in the workplace.
“About 15 years ago, I taught a course on poverty and there were two groups in there that were ready to tear each other’s heads off,” he recalls. “One guy was a left-wing radical and another person was a right-wing radical and they each led these factions of students.
But more recently, there’s a pretty good feeling for issues when they’re talked about as not just for the poor, but also for minorities and other groups.”
- Joanie Harmon