Having spent the last decade organizing around and lobbying for anti-poverty policies at the state level, I’m always intrigued when anyone decides to make it a priority. I’m doubly intrigued when conservative lawmakers tell me they want to work on it, given that poverty has historically been a focus of more liberal-minded legislators. So now, on the 20th anniversary of Welfare Reform, how do I respond to the Republican Speaker of the House’s 2016 anti-poverty agenda?
Well, it’s complicated. I love it. I hate it. I wish it said more. I wish it said less. I wanted something new. I am nervous about new, splashy ideas to address poverty. Here’s my quick breakdown:
I love that anyone is paying attention to poverty, especially someone with the power to do something about it.
Poverty in this country does not get enough attention. That House Speaker Ryan wants to talk about it is welcome. And the document they released earlier this week even proposes some good stuff, such as juvenile justice reform and making it easier to use rental vouchers.
I hate all the focus on employment being the silver bullet.
This ignores that the poorest among us are often unable to work due to a disability, domestic violence, mental illness, a history of addiction, and many other reasons. It ignores that the education and training support currently offered by our safety net programs, especially Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), is not robust or funded enough to provide the training needed to help most TANF recipients find a job, let alone one that will move their families permanently out of poverty.
What’s more, the proposal ignores the fact that the minimum wage isn’t enough to actually move people out of poverty.
And thus far, many in Ryan’s caucus are strongly opposed to increasing the minimum wage. Another ill-advised part of the plan is an endorsement of a proposal that would weaken our free school meal programs. There’s more to hate in here, but these seemed too egregious to not mention in a quick summary. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes that some proposals would likely do more harm than good, risking increases in poverty and even homelessness among poor families with children.
I wish it said more about, well anything.
Many of the proposals are incredibly vague, making it difficult to tell how they would impact people living in poverty. Most troubling to me was the silence on how this plan would line up with the devastating cuts in the House’s proposed budget. According to the CBPP, the House Budget Committee approved a plan in March that would “cut programs for low- and moderate-income Americans by a startling $3.7 trillion over ten years — targeting those programs for 62 percent of the plan’s budget cuts. Under that budget, 42 percent of all federal resources for low-income programs would disappear by 2026.”
Most shocking, however, was that the plan virtually ignores race and racism.
It makes no mention of the well-documented racial income and wealth gaps. As noted in Pacific Standard, 38% of black children today live in poverty, compared with just 10% of white children (both numbers are way too high in my mind!). Failing to talk about the link between racism and poverty in the US almost certainly means failing to actually address poverty. It might be unrealistic to wish for this policy paper to solve this problem, but I wish that the plan at least mentioned it in real terms.
I wish it said less about employment.
I already said why above, but it’s worth noting again here. Assuming everyone in the US is able to find a job that pays them enough to move out of poverty, and therefore should need only extremely limited benefits, is just ridiculously unrealistic. I wish policy papers would move past this charade.
I wanted it to say something new.
But as both Politico and CBPP note, much of this plan is the same conservative ideas that we have heard time and again, only in a warmer rhetorical package. It includes old favorites like reducing school lunch nutrition standards (remember the Reagan-era idea that ketchup was a vegetable?), as well as more recent standards like time-limiting many public benefits.
But I’m also very suspicious of new, splashy ideas to end poverty.
Included in the plan is the call for extending the type of rigid, often unrealistic work requirements that characterize the TANF block grant to other forms of basic support, particularly rental assistance. This is definitely a new frontier in the push to link work with anti-poverty benefits, and one I just can’t support. It sounds more like a recipe to increase homelessness than a plan to “chart a path forward for all Americans to achieve the American dream,” as Ryan claims.
So where does this leave me? Mostly disappointed.
Research shows ample support for the idea that steady programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) are effective in boosting household income and, in the case of the EITC, helping reduce poverty and support children’s development. I would really much rather see an increase in support for programs and services that we know are working instead of looking for a newer and ultimately less effective “Better Way.”