The poverty beyond the debate

President Obama is racing around the country urging Americans to support his jobs bill. Yet even if Republicans agreed to everything he wants and the economy quickly bounced back, millions of Americans would still face a grim future.

The Census Bureau reported last week that more Americans are living in poverty than at any time in the past 50 years. Median household incomes have fallen to where they were 14 years ago, prompting talk of a "lost decade."

I've spent most of this decade studying poverty up close, talking with poor families in the United States and around the world. Although I think the jobs bill would help some of them, the current debate is so limited in scope and time frame as to offer little hope for the 46.2 million Americans who now live below the poverty line.

Everywhere you look, people are lining up for jobs. Parents cannot support their children. Soup kitchens are crowded. Poverty is growing not only in inner cities, but also in the suburbs.

Isn't this because of the bad economy? Yes, but only in part. Our team's research, based on thousands of poor individuals and data from around the globe, shows that longer-term forces are also responsible. These forces cannot be overcome by the jobs bill or, for that matter, an economic recovery.

Growing inequality has become apparent in the United States as well as other countries, especially those that compete globally but do not have suitable support mechanisms for those in need. In India, for instance, the poorest and least connected have fallen further behind even when the economy has grown. Between 1993 and 2005, when the Indian economy grew by more than 7 percent annually, the incomes of the bottom fifth of the population (adjusted for inflation) fell by more than 10 percent. In rural areas, the drop was even sharper.

Clearly, conditions in rural India are very different from those in the United States. But the forces affecting both economies are similar; the shores of open economies are washed by the same currents.

To survive, a business in India or America must be able to compete against the best in the world. Workers in either country must have skills that give their employers an edge. Workers who have very few relevant skills, like those in India's bottom fifth, or whose skills are no longer competitive, like those below the median income in the United States, cannot command secure jobs. They become part of a growing underclass whose incomes fall over time regardless of economic growth.

The end of the current downturn will not change these trends. Unless the United States is willing to accept poverty levels that were unimaginable just a few years ago, it has to tackle a lot more than what Obama and Republicans are fighting about. Cutting taxes is hardly enough to resolve long-standing and worsening problems. Neither is a program of make-work construction.

Across the country - particularly in its poorest, most remote, and least connected parts, such as rural North Carolina - individuals must be provided with the means to develop and upgrade their skills. An enhanced program of Pell grants and college loans would help, as would a network of training institutions and better teacher incentives.

Additionally, aspirations have to be raised in poor communities. Information about better career paths has to become more reliably available, so that talented individuals are not left behind, no matter where they live. School counselors and employment offices have to play bigger roles. Such measures would have abundant long-term payoffs.

I learned during my decade of study that poor families across the world are united in one thing: A deep concern for investing in their children's future. From these lessons of struggle and hope, Republicans and Democrats can and should find common ground for building an economy that harnesses and hones talents more widely and effectively.

Anirudh Krishna is associate dean for international academic programs at the Sanford School and a professor of public policy and political science. This commentary was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer and also in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.