The age-old threat to students has always been that something will go on their ‘permanent record’. Fictitious or not, the concept was a way of expressing to students that so long as they are in school, they are part of an institution that will hold them accountable for both their efforts and their actions.

Congress is another institution linked to accountability, with the stakes arguably higher because a Member’s efforts (or lack thereof) and actions ultimately reflect upon more than the individual. Rather, a Member’s activities impact their represented constituencies, and collectively, our nation. As such, advocacy groups play a role in tracking and spotlighting Members’ actions, using campaigns, advertisements, and awards – as well as the Congressional version of a school report card, the voting scorecard.

A prime example of this last method can be seen in the recent release of the 4th annual Poverty Scorecard by our state partner in Illinois, the Sargent Shriver Center on Poverty Law. The initiative grades Members of Congress according to their votes on a set of bills the Shriver Center deemed to be “the most important anti-poverty measures of the year”. This year’s Scorecard revealed a negative correlation between Members with poor voting records on anti-poverty legislation and high poverty levels in those states. Perhaps this was not a startling outcome, but the Scorecard results ultimately proved more complex. It turns out that the grading exercise also revealed that several states with relatively high poverty levels are actually home to Members with good voting records on anti-poverty bills.

At first glance, this might appear to muddle the Scorecard’s takeaway message, but in fact it serves to highlight an important point: poverty cannot be tackled through federal action alone. At times, Congress may pass good and much-needed legislation on poverty-related issues, but it is often up to states to administer the programs and actively take advantage of available federal dollars to do so. So, for the federal policies to work as intended, there needs to be a degree of collaboration between federal, state, and local governments. When this does not happen – at times for political reasons (such as when some state leaders publicly refused to take emergency stimulus funding in 2009) or at times for fiscal reasons (because state budgets are subject to different constraints than is the federal budget) – the resulting poverty level for that area of the country becomes a sum of all parts, rather than the product of Congressional votes and legislation in particular.

Such nuances are not at all to diminish the necessity for federal-led action against poverty or holding Members of Congress accountable to be the national leaders of this fight. But it is to say that accountability is important on all levels. As such, the Shriver Poverty Scorecard is a great example of a tool that can be utilized on state and local levels as well to track leadership and action on anti-poverty initiatives.

And returning again to the federal level, the number of bills passed in 2010 regarding poverty, as included in the Shriver Center Scorecard criteria, may prove to be the high-water mark for federal action against poverty for some time. Proposals of deep cuts to federal programs that serve children and their families are being released regularly from both Congress and the Obama Administration. Contrast such cutbacks with the studies that foresee child poverty to escalate by 1 million children in the period of one year and it is anyone’s guess as to what the 2011 Poverty Scorecard will look like. But at least our nation’s leaders will be on record.

For more information about child poverty, take a look at these recent First Focus reports: