Let’s Recall Poverty Before the Safety Net

January 16, 2012

Huffington Post blogger Dan Morgan looks back nearly 50 years to tell us what poverty was like in his early reporting days.

This is an important, timely post because it reminds us of how poor people lived — and died — before the creation of today’s safety net.

Here in the District of Columbia, Morgan found “people living in basement apartments with dirt floors. Many were hungry, cold and short of coal for stoves. Some children were staying home because they had no shoes.”

Found a penniless woman with no coat to brave the cold weather for a trip to the social service agency. A blind man who made the trip, but was living with his nine children in an unheated place because the agency wouldn’t — or couldn’t — help him buy fuel.

In California, Morgan met a family that had lost three babies to dehydration while picking cotton there in 1936.

Still dreadful conditions 20 years later, he writes, when Michael Harrington chronicled farm worker poverty in that agriculture-rich state.

Morgan cites some evidence that safety net programs have lifted Americans out of poverty.

For example, the official poverty rate for seniors dropped from 28.5% in 1966 to 9% in 2010, at least partly because the federal government started indexing Social Security retirement benefits to cost-of-living increases.

Two other examples based on the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure. You can see them in this nice infographic from the Half in Ten campaign.

But Morgan’s main point is that safety net programs have changed the quality of poverty.

In other words, poor people, by and large, don’t suffer the same acute, life-threatening deprivations as they did before we began building the network of programs that make up today’s safety net.

Morgan focuses on what may be our biggest success — federal nutrition assistance programs.

“Clinical malnutrition,” he writes, “has given way to what government and private agencies call ‘food insecurity.'”

“Poor nutrition, not malnutrition is the biggest problem” now, says anti-hunger expert and advocate Joel Berg.

And indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 figures, children in only 1% of American households sometimes didn’t get enough to eat because their parents couldn’t afford to feed them.

WIC alone, Berg estimates, has prevented 200,000 babies from dying at birth.

“Progressives,” Morgan concludes, “should not be timid about extolling this achievement. And conservatives, above all, should welcome it” because safety net programs “enable millions more people to participate in the great American market,” e.g., by using food stamps to buy groceries, vouchers to pay rent to private landlords.

Many conservatives do appreciate the safety net, Morgan says. But, even by his own showing, many don’t.

For example, he quotes Newt Gingrich, whose latest tome notes that the 2009 poverty rate was about the same as when the War on Poverty began. “What did we get in return?” Newt asks — a rhetorical question if ever there was one.

We hear the same thing from the Republican Study Committee, which counts a large majority of House Republicans as members.

“Americans have spent around $16 trillion on means-tested welfare,”* it says. “Even with all these resources devoted to assistance for the poor, poverty is higher today than it was in the 1970s.”

This is the send-up for its broad-gauge attack on virtually the whole range of federal programs that constitute the safety net.

And RSC member Paul Ryan, who chairs the influential House Budget Committee, has personally championed radical safety net cuts.

As we head into the Fiscal Year 2013 budget season, both the administration and Congress will be looking for ways to reduce non-defense spending by $54.7 billion.

“The safety net will be a fat target,” Morgan warns.

Some major programs won’t get hit by the automatic cuts the failure of the Super Committee will trigger. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe, since Congress is perfectly free to change them — or the law that partly protects them.

Other programs are wide open, as the Congressional committees and subcommittees parcel out the mandated reductions.

We often focus on defects in the safety net — people who aren’t served, people who are but not sufficiently. This is still important.

But, taking a leaf out of Morgan’s book, I feel we urgently need to show how much good safety net programs do — and to revive the history of what poverty in America was like before them.

* This figure comes from the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation — a not always reliable source. The RSC is also indebted to the Foundation for its uniquely expansive definition of “welfare”.


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