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”.


House Republican Group Launches Broad Attack On “Welfare”

April 1, 2011

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has been due for reauthorization for two years now. Some members of the House Republican Study Committee have seized on the occasion to propose what they style as the next logical step forward in welfare reform.

It’s nothing of the sort. It’s actually a radical strategy to starve the entire range of programs we call the safety net — plus a covert attack on organized labor, immigrants and, as one might expect, women’s reproductive choices.

The misleadingly-titled Welfare Reform Act would cover all federal programs, except those designed specifically for veterans, that provide cash or equivalent assistance to low-income individuals and families.

In other words, it lumps into the “welfare” category not only TANF, but more than 70 other programs that serve diverse populations and needs — food stamps and free and reduced-price school meals, Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Security Income for severely disabled people, child care subsidies, housing and home energy assistance, job training and community development programs, Head Start and Title I (the main source of federal funds for public schools) ….

Well, you get the idea.

The Republican Study Committee claims the bill will reverse the course that has led to more Americans living in poverty and increasing dependence on government.

It would do nothing about the former, though it would certainly mean more desperate poverty for millions of Americans. It would, however, decrease dependence on government — as TANF already has — by denying benefits to people who need them.

This bill is so bad in so many ways that I’ll confine myself here to the over-arching framework.

It would impose a cap on total spending for means-tested programs as soon as the unemployment rate drops to 6.5%. The cap would be 2007 spending, with an adjustment for inflation up to the trigger year.

There’d be no further adjustment for inflation. No adjustment for increases in the number of people eligible for any of the programs. No provision for lifting or adjusting the cap when another recession drives the unemployment rate up again.

And no provision for the fact that Medicaid costs will rise faster and more steadily than the Consumer Price Index that would be used to adjust the cap.

They’ll rise faster for the foreseeable future for two reasons. First, because health care costs are ballooning. And second, because many more now-uninsured people will be covered by Medicaid when the health care reform act goes into full gear in 2014.

So inevitably Medicaid squeezes all the other programs. Or the squeeze becomes a justification for converting it into a flat-funded block grant and/or doing away with the health care reform act — assuming that neither of these has happened by the time the cap goes into effect.

RSC Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH) proclaims that “the most effective welfare benefit is the one that leads to a job.” But many of the programs that would shrink or die under the bill aren’t intended to help people get jobs.

Nor could they.

The bill has new problematic work requirements for adult food stamp recipients who are unemployed or under-employed. Some version of these could arguably move some recipients into somewhat better economic circumstances — though the TANF experience makes one doubt that many would earn enough to live much above the poverty level.

But what about children poor enough to get free school meals? SSI recipients, who can’t qualify for the benefit unless they’re too disabled to work? Low-income elderly people in nursing homes? People with advanced stages of HIV/AIDS whose lives depend on housing assistance?

In short, the bill is another proposal to cap federal spending in the guise of deficit reduction without doing the hard, politically-dangerous work of naming and quantifying the cuts.

Happily, it seems not to be going anywhere in its current form — as of this writing, no cosponsors except the original five.

But it could help shape the debate. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see pieces of the bill resurface in others that will have more traction.


Deficit Double-Talk

February 1, 2011

About 10 years ago, arch-conservative Grover Norquist revealed the impetus behind the Bush tax cuts. “My goal,” he said, “is to cut government … down to the size where we can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.

I cite this fine display of candor because it’s notably absent from what Congressional Republicans are saying now. But it’s nonetheless applicable to the course they claim reflects the will of the American voters

First, they adamantly insist that all the Bush tax cuts must be extended. Also that even more wealth must be exempted from the estate tax. These measures, of course, increase the deficit — though the “middle class” tax cut extensions the President also wanted made up the largest part of the impact.

Then the Republican-controlled House adopts new rules that will exempt further tax cuts from budget discipline. At the same time, it subjects all spending increases to new constraints, requiring that they be offset only by spending cuts.

A good way to “cut the government down to size,” but no way to reduce the deficit.

The House Republican leadership also reaffirms its pledge to roll back federal spending to the pre-Recovery Act level. At this point, that  would seem to entail $60 billion in immediate cuts, plus an additional $40 billion beginning in October — assuming Congress passes a Fiscal Year 2012 budget on time.

Not good enough, says the Republican Study Committee, representing a majority of Republican House members. We want discretionary spending, i.e., the spending Congress annually approves, rolled back to the 2006 level and frozen there until 2021. Except for Defense — the single biggest chunk of discretionary spending.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the RSC plan would ultimately cut non-defense appropriations 42% below what the Congressional Budget Office says would be needed to maintain the Fiscal Year 2010 funding level, with adjustments for inflation.

No way this much could be cut without decimating key government programs — especially because it’s a sure bet that not all programs would get hit with that 42%.

Such drastic spending cuts aren’t needed to address the long-term deficit. Nor would they do so. As this nifty interactive pie chart shows, all non-defense discretionary spending accounted for just 15% of the Fiscal Year 2010 budget.

Nearly 60% was mandatory spending, i.e., spending that Congress doesn’t vote on each year. And nearly 70% of that was for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Enter Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap for America’s Future. As the Economic Policy Institute explains, the Roadmap aims to “dismantle Medicare and Medicaid,” replacing them with vouchers that would increasingly fall short of health care costs.

Also cut Social Security benefits while partially privatizing the system. This, says EPI, would mainly benefit wealthier Americans, who would also gain from drastic shifts in the tax burden — so drastic that millionaires would pay taxes at lower rates than middle-class families.

Death knell for what’s historically been our progressive federal income tax system.

These are not deficit-driven conservative proposals. They’re as revolutionary as the Tea Party’s name. Because they would radically define what we the people — well, most of us people — have come to understand as the federal government’s responsibility “to promote the general Welfare.”

The depth of the cuts, combined with the re-engineering of social insurance programs would shift that responsibility to state and local governments. But they have neither the resources nor the budgetary flexibility to assume it — even if they want to. And current evidence suggests some don’t.

Bottom line is that the House Republican majority, seconded by Republican leaders in the Senate, would roll up the safety net and roll back the clock to the nineteenth century, when poverty, education, public health and the like just weren’t any of the federal government’s business.


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