Yesterday was my blog’s seventh birthday. The occasion always prompts reflections, some of which I’ve shared.
I’ve spoken in the past about how things were when I launched the blog, compared to how they were when the birthday rolled round. I’ve spoken about the value of the blog as a source of discipline for learning and of relationships with advocates who inspire me — and readers who keep me going.
What’s top of mind today — and has been for awhile — grows out of the scope I carved out for the blog, but only gradually got a purchase on.
The scope is very — or one might say self-indulgently — broad, as the blog’s name indicates. It essentially licenses posts on any nexus between public policies and poverty, though as a practical matter, I’ve confined myself to the American scene.
I’ve stretched the scope as I’ve come to understand how our official poverty measure fails to do justice to the extent of economic hardship in our country.
Some of our major federal policies recognize this and so set income eligibility maximums above the federal poverty line — a simplified version of the thresholds the Census Bureau uses for the official measure.
At the same time, those income eligibility maximums vary a lot from state to state insofar as federal programs grant states flexibility.
We also see marked variations when we look at how states invest their own tax revenues in programs that provide a safety net and others that can help low-income people achieve a modicum of financial security.
States have always faced the challenges these choices reflect. They surely face them now, as they have ever since the Budget Control Act capped federal spending on non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations.
The fact that the recent budget deal temporarily lifts the caps doesn’t relieve them from the challenges because the non-defense part of the budget includes a very wide range of programs.
Congressional appropriations committees have divvied up the new, higher spending level now. And at least on the House side, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education — a major source of funds for programs that benefit low-income people — reportedly won’t get its fair share.
Highly doubtful that the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development budget will fully undo the damages to the federal housing voucher program or the capital fund that local agencies use to keep public housing units habitable.
Meanwhile, Congress will clearly do nothing now about a long-neglected piece of the federal budget that’s not subject to annual appropriations — the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant.
It’s not only the federal government’s major share of funding for states’ TANF programs. It also determines how much of their own funds they must spend to get that share.
And as I’ve written (perhaps too often), it’s never gotten a penny more than it did the year that TANF ended welfare as we knew it. This means it’s now worth about a third less in real dollars.
Which brings me to the other nexus I’ve tried to deal with, but mostly one nibble at a time. That’s the nexus between federal policies — budgets included — and related state and local policies. These too include budgets, but not budgets only.
I’ve also cited states’ varying responses to federal policy choices that can enable them to enroll more low-income people in SNAP (the food stamp program) — and qualify some of them for higher benefits.
I’ve noted disparities in minimum wages, as some states raise their minimums above the federal, while others either preserve the link or have no minimum of their own at all. I haven’t noted, but probably should have how much those higher minimums vary.
These and other such differences have made me increasingly conscious of what I think of as geographic inequality. We read a lot about income inequality — and about how children’s future financial prospects hinge so much on whom they’re born to.
But how low-income people, including children fare depends a whole lot on where they live. Part of that, of course, is that some local economies offer better opportunities than others. But a major part stems from policy choices.
I know I’m not saying anything new or original here. Only taking this occasion to say how the more I learn, the more I’m disturbed by how unfair our federal-state-local system is to so many poor and near-poor people who’ve got little, if any choice of where they live.
Not saying I’d like to see all policies determined by our federal government — surely not the one we have now. Low-income people have it bad enough already. I shudder to think how much worse off the geographically fortunate would be if left to the tender mercies of the majorities in Congress.
Won’t think because I can’t bear to what would happen to all struggling people if the next election not only sustains those majorities, but puts a like-minded candidate — or a loose cannon — in the White House.
What would a ninth birthday post look like then?