Will We Have DC Families Living on Less Than $2 a Day?

September 28, 2015

Short answer to the question the title poses is we already do, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports. And about a year from now, we could have well over 6,000, including about 13,000 children with no cash income whatever unless Mayor Bowser comes up with a lifeline that the DC Council approves.

“This is the single most important moment for poverty in D.C.” since the birth of DCFPI in 2001, Executive Director Ed Lazere told a group of us meeting to discuss the crisis those families may face.

What Has Driven So Many Families Into Such Deep Poverty

Families who’ve participated in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 months or more have exceeded the time limit District law now sets. It provides for a benefits phase-out leading to zero in October 2016.

The Council suspended the phase-out after the first cut, but then let it resume. So a three-person TANF family now receives a benefit equivalent to 9% (not a typo) of the federal poverty line.

What Federal Law Has to Do With the Time Limit

No state or the District must have a time limit. We can trace the reason virtually all do to the law that established TANF. It generally prohibits states from using their federal block grant funds for cash assistance to adults or minor heads-of-household after they’ve been in the program for 60 months. Exceptions allowed, however (of which more below).

What We Know About TANF and Work

Parents do, by and large, seem to have a sense of urgency about finding work. Extremely low benefits, as well as imminent cut-offs help account for this, though we shouldn’t ignore aspirations and values they share with the great majority of Americans.

Staying in the workforce — and in a job that pays more than the very low maximum for TANF eligibility — is another matter.

We know from past research that adults who leave TANF for work or because work they had began to pay more often return to the program — about one in five during the late 1990s, when the labor market was considerably more favorable than it is now.

A more recent audit of the District’s longest-term participants casts severe doubts on their employment and earnings prospects. Fewer than half the parents who’d received job training and/or placement help got a job of any sort. And only a tiny fraction still had those jobs six months later.

These dismal results probably reflect, among other things, reasons they’ve come up against the time limit. A deplorable lack of current research here.

But we know from a 2002 study of the District’s TANF caseload that most parents who’d remained in the program for three years faced multiple barriers to work, e.g., less than a high school education, little (or no) work experience, mental health problems, recent and severe domestic violence, sick children or other family members they had to care for.

These findings generally conform to others. An evaluation of a Minnesota TANF employment program, for example, found, among other things, that about two-thirds of participants had a physical or learning disability, a mental health problem and/or responsibility for an incapacitated family member.

What the District Could Do

The District had no time limit until 2011, after soon-to-be Mayor Gray pushed through a bill during his last days as Council Chairman — a license for him to revert to his earlier benefits phase-out plan.

And indeed, he did, but with none of the relief options federal rules allow. For example, the District could extend benefits beyond the time limit for up to 20% of its average caseload and still use federal funds to pay for them so long as the families met criteria for “hardship,” however it chose to define that, or had a member who’d been “battered or subjected to extreme cruelty.”

Most states extend benefits when parents, for various reasons, can’t be expected to immediately find work — because they’re victims of domestic violence, for example, sick or incapacitated or caring for family member who is.

As of mid-2013, 14 states provided extensions when parents were “cooperating,” i.e., doing what their plans said they should, but couldn’t find work. This would seem especially relevant to the District’s at-risk families.

Though we don’t know how many of the parents have less than a high school diploma or the equivalent, we do know that working-age residents (25-64 years old) without the credential have very high unemployment rates — nearly 14.6% last year, according to the American Community Survey. Probably even higher for younger residents.

We also know that parents in the District’s TANF program are still on waiting lists for job training and placement services — about 300, the new head of the agency responsible for TANF told us at the meeting.

More to the point perhaps, parents waited, on average, 11 months for such services last year. But the clock kept ticking toward the time limit.

And some of them were pretty far along before the Department of Human Services rolled out improvements in both the training component and the assessments used to decide which services would best prepare parents for work. Time in the old problem-riddled program still counts.

What Will Happen Next

The budget for the upcoming fiscal year pushes back the benefits cut-off that was originally set for October 2015 in part because the Mayor wanted DHS to have some time to develop an extension policy — something it should have done four years ago.

One can hope the policy recognizes the fact that the vast majority of TANF parents aren’t to blame for remaining unemployed — or so egregiously under-employed as to still be income-eligible.

Nor to blame if some unforeseeable barrier arises after they’ve passed the time limit, e.g., an eruption of domestic violence or stalking, a debilitating illness. Needless to say, children aren’t to blame, no matter what.

All this calls for not only liberal extensions, but a rollback of the benefits cuts that have caused such dire hardships for the 60-month families.

Yet even the best extension policy and fully restored benefits can’t make up for flaws in the basic structure of the federal TANF law — the main reason some 1.5 million families have had to get by on, at most, $2 a day.

Better Poverty Measure Changes Rates, Strengthens Case for Safety Net

September 21, 2015

As I noted last week, the Census Bureau published the results of its latest Supplemental Poverty Measure analysis at the same time as its official poverty measure rates for 2014.

As in the past, the SPM produces a somewhat higher nationwide poverty rate — 15.3%. Though a tad lower than the comparable rate last year, slides from the Bureau say it’s not enough to pass the statistical test.

We also see different rates, both higher and lower, for the major population groups the Bureau breaks out. For example, the child poverty rate is 4.8% lower — 3.5 million or so fewer children. At the same time, the senior poverty rate rises by nearly as much.

We see shifts among major race/ethnicity groups as well. The largest are for blacks (3% lower) and for Asians (4.8% higher).

All these shifts and others reflect four major ways the SPM differs from the official measure — the base it proceeds from, adjustments it makes for certain basic living and other “necessary” costs, whom it includes as part of a family and what it counts as income.

This last gives us a glimpse — imperfect, but the best we’ve got — of how well some of our major federal anti-poverty measures work. And once again, we get reliable hard data proving that they do work, right-wing canards notwithstanding.

For example, we generally see lower deep poverty rates, i.e., the percent of the population overall or of a particular group that lived on incomes no greater than half the applicable poverty threshold — about $9,535 for a parent with two children.

The overall deep poverty rate is 1.6% lower than what the official measure produces. The deep poverty rate for children drops more markedly — from 9.7% to 4.3%.

The Census Bureau attributes the lower deep poverty rates to non-cash benefits targeted to low-income people — a type of income the SPM captures, while the official measure doesn’t. Seniors are the exception here, it notes.

Their deep poverty rate goes up to 5.1%, making it the same as the rate for the population as a whole. This is mainly because both the official measure and the SPM count Social Security benefits as income, but only the latter adjusts for medical out-of-pocket costs, along with others deducted from the base.

It’s nevertheless still the case that Social Security proves the single most effective anti-poverty program we’ve got. Without Social Security benefits, half of all people 65 and over would fall below the poverty threshold.

The Census Bureau shows this and the effects of other benefits — mostly parts of the safety net — by deducting their value and displaying the new poverty rate.

So we learn, for example, that not counting the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit would make the SPM poverty rate 3.1% higher. Little back-of-the-envelope math tells us that the tax credits effectively lifted about 9.8 million people out of poverty, including more than 5.2 million children.

SNAP (food stamp) benefits rank third among the anti-poverty impacts. They account for about 4.7 million fewer poor people, almost half of them children.

On the other hand, LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefits lifted only about 316,000 people above the poverty threshold — and so few in the working-age (18-64) group as to make no nick in their poverty rate whatever.

Now, the analysis doesn’t reflect the way benefits work in the real world. Most families that receive federally-funded help with their heating bills probably also get SNAP benefits, for example. Likewise low-income working families that get an annual budget boost from the refundable tax credits.

We don’t yet have an analysis that rolls all such safety net benefits together, though we do have one for 2012 that shows they cut the SPM poverty rate by nearly half and the child poverty rate by even more.

Do we nonetheless have policy lessons here? Well, of course, we do. Don’t want to try your patience, followers, but can’t restrain myself from flagging (flogging?) a few.

LIHEAP has become a pitiful thing, partly because it got whacked by the 2013 across-the-board cuts, partly because this came on top of earlier cuts and partly because, in case you hadn’t noticed, home heating costs have increased.

So fewer households are getting such help as LIHEAP provides and they’re getting less — so much less that the average grant didn’t cover even two months of heating during the 2014-15 winter season.

Not going to see much improvement, if any so long as the Congressional Republican majority insists on keeping appropriations for non-defense programs below the caps set by the Budget Control Act. The House Appropriations Committee has, in fact, approved a $25 million cut for LIHEAP.

Changes in the refundable tax credits that help account for the effectiveness the SPM analysis indicates will expire at the end of 2017. And what seems a bipartisan sentiment in favor of expanding the EITC for childless workers is thus far little more than that — and not all that bipartisan, if we judge by cosponsors of bills pending in Congress.

Though SNAP clearly lifts people of all ages out of poverty, it doesn’t prevent a goodly number from going hungry at least some of the time. More about this in an upcoming post — and more perhaps about other issues one can tease out of the new SPM report.


Want to Know What Poor People Need? First Ask the Right Questions.

September 8, 2015

The National Diaper Bank Network responded to my post on diaper needs by alerting me to a new curriculum it developed in collaboration with other members of MOMS Partnership, a coalition of public agencies and private-sector organizations in New Haven, Connecticut.

The curriculum is for social service professions who assess the needs of poor and near-poor families and provide related care and/or referrals. It aims to inject attention to basic needs into what they do.

“Our instincts,” the Network’s Executive Director Joanne Goldblum says, “can lead us to habitually conclude that the best solutions to addressing chronic issues are referrals for more supports and services,” e.g., therapy, parenting classes, job skills training.

But solutions to what the professionals observe and ferret out in interviews could, in one respect, be a whole lot simpler and swifter — not to mention cheaper.

For example, a social worker visits a family. She sees piles of dirty laundry, dust bunnies everywhere, a toddler wandering around in a wet diaper.

She’s likely to conclude that the mother suffers from clinical depression — and her children perhaps from the sort of neglect that warrants the intervention of the child welfare agency.

But the mom may merely not have enough money for the laundromat and detergent, a vacuum sweeper and fresh diapers.

In short, the social worker sees a parent who needs to be fixed, rather than unmet basic needs she could readily identify if she just asked the right questions. They’re part of what she’d learn to ask in training based on the curriculum.

What would she do with the answers? What sort of referral, for example, could readily supply detergent and a sweeper — or the cash to buy them? What if the family’s not in a community where nonprofits distribute free diapers?

Goldblum, who helped develop the curriculum and now uses it in workshops, had a multi-part answer for me.

First, sensitized social service workers would advocate within their organizations for a basic needs line item in the budget or a more general fund they could tap to provide families with money for basic needs — or to buy them for the family.

Second, they would reach out to local voluntary groups that could donate items or initiate collections, like the diaper drives the Network promotes.

A number of social workers and nurses now spend their own money to supply basic needs, Goldblum told me. This is hardly a fair or sufficient solution, though it speaks well of the professionals who are perceptive and caring enough to dig into their own wallets for urgent needs.

Third, social service workers would advocate for public policies and programs that meet basic needs. They would, one hopes, try to engage their organizations and their networks, including their professional associations and online groups they belong to.

So how do we get from where we are to where we ought to be? Goldblum hopes the curriculum will, in the long run, help change both policies and practice.

But for both, she said, we need more “public conversation” about how social service professionals, policymakers and the rest of us feel about people in poverty. The conversation, if honest, would reveal that negative feelings about poor people aren’t confined to right-wingers whose diatribes and slurs we read in the press.

All this stuff about how poor parents are irresponsible. How they’re poor because they’ve made bad choices — and won’t pull themselves together to remedy the damage. How they don’t care about their children’s well-being. Etc.

Social services professionals themselves, the curriculum says, may make unconscious negative judgments based on “superficial factors” — smelly clothes, for example, or missed appointments.

They may have become somewhat jaded, I’m told, because poor clients do sometimes make unwise decisions — as do we all. Poverty itself, however, may make people prone to decisions that don’t serve their best interests.

A widely-reported study concluded that worries about financial problems take up so much mental “bandwidth” that people may not have enough left over for everyday challenges like resisting things they should — let alone for activities that could lift them out of poverty, e.g., looking for a better-paying job.

We’ve got other research indicating that poverty-related stress and “negative affective states,” e.g., unhappiness, make people “short-sighted and risk-averse” such that they’ll make decisions that perpetuate their poverty.

One formerly low-income mother achieved some celebrity — and a book contract — by blogging on her extraordinarily stressful life and reasons she made “bad” financial decisions. These include her feeling that they don’t matter because she “will never not be poor.”

Addressing basic needs won’t in itself get to the root causes of poverty. But it surely would relieve stress, misery and probably utter hopelessness.

After all, something troubling did get better. Someone in “the system” asked questions relevant to pressing everyday concerns, listened to figure out what could relieve them — and delivered.

None of this is to say that poor parents don’t, in some cases, have problems that call for therapy, parenting skills training and the like. But, Goldblum says, providers can’t effectively get to such problems until basic needs gaps are filled.

The curriculum has broader implications than might first appear. One is that it’s a model for developing agendas. As my title suggests, if you want to know what poor people need, ask them.

Another is that it seeks to engage advocates whose professional expertise and experiences would make them especially effective.

A third that strikes me is what the curriculum represents. Poverty is a large, complex problem. Goldblum and her MOMS Partnership colleagues clearly understand this.

But they didn’t just throw up their hands. They saw an opportunity to jump start a programmatic shift that could become larger and branch into the public policy sphere. This, in fact, is how Goldblum built a national network from an insight and a local fund-raising initiative.



Much to Like (Though Not Everything) in Draft TANF Bill

August 27, 2015

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources styles its bill to revamp Temporary Assistance for Needy Families a discussion draft, indicating that it’s still a work in progress. A good thing that, since as I’ve already said, it’s far from problem-free.

The biggest problem, to my mind — and the one that may prove the biggest sticking point — is its failure to increase the block grant, which gets divvied up among states to help cover program costs.

The draft nevertheless has enough promising features for us to hope that it addresses this and other problems progressive experts have flagged.

Here’s a summary of features that particularly struck me, with apologies to you policy wonks and service providers who understandably would like more details. The law and the rules that govern what states must, may and can’t do are dauntingly complex.

A New TANF Purpose. Surprising as it may seem, the general purposes Congress has defined for TANF don’t include poverty reduction. The discussion draft would.

What it wouldn’t do, however, is hold states accountable for reducing poverty among families that participated in their TANF programs. Nor for those their programs currently serve — let alone all they should.

A dismal record on several counts. The new purpose wouldn’t improve it. But at least one other feature could. (Read on.)

Expanded Work Activity Options. Few features of the current TANF law are as problematic as the limits on activities states can count toward their required work participation rates, i.e., the targets they supposedly have to hit to avert penalties. (Again, read on and you’ll understand why “supposedly.”)

On the one hand, we’ve got core activities, which states can count for all the hours they’re supposed to have parents engaged, and non-core activities, which states can count only for parents who engage in core activities for a specified minimum number of hours per week.

On the other hand, we’ve got limits on countable core activity time for participation in vocational education programs, other education programs directly related to employment and high school attendance. The first counts only for a year — and for no more than 30% of parents. The latter two only for parents still in their teens.

Together, these tend to deny TANF parents opportunities to gain the formal education credentials and marketable skills, including basic literacy, that will enable them to get jobs that pay enough to support themselves as their children — or indeed, any jobs at all.

One need only look at the unemployment rate for all but the youngest working-age adults who don’t have a high school diploma or the equivalent for evidence of one of the defects in the current scheme.

The draft would extend the vocational education limit to two years and the high school age limit to twenty-five. It leaves open the question of whether to adjust the voc. ed. cap.

It also loosens up countable time restrictions that could benefit TANF parents ready to enter the workforce — or far from ready. For example, states could count toward their work participation rates more job search time and more time in so-called job readiness activities like mental health counseling.

Simplified Work Participation Rate. What states can count toward their required work participation rates depends not only on how the rules classify activities, but on whether participants are in one-parent or two-parent families. More core activity hours required for the latter.

The end result of these various distinctions is a large administrative burden, as you can imagine. The director of a nonprofit partnership that provides TANF services recently testified that their career counselors spend more than half their time on documentation.

The draft would do away with both the core/non-core distinction and the so-called marriage penalty, i.e., the higher work participation rate for parents who are living together. It would also allow states to get partial credit toward their rate for certain parents who participate for fewer hours than the standard minimum.

Steps Toward Accountability for Results. Though the draft doesn’t hold states accountable for poverty reduction, it does require them to measure two related outcomes — employment and median wages for parents who recently left the program.

States would have to measure these outcomes for all parents who no longer receive cash assistance, whether because they’ve moved from welfare to work or for some less hopeful reason, e.g., because they’d reached the end of their state’s time limit.

CLASP, among others, has alerted the subcommittee to problems with the outcome measures. But making states responsible for what their work-related services achieve, rather than merely parents’ participation in them is another smart, overdue move.

No More Caseload Reduction Credit. Many states have had a deuce of a time meeting the work participation rates. They face a penalty — loss of some of their block grant funds — if they don’t.

But they can avert the penalty by reducing the number of families they serve. They’ve thus got an incentive to keep eligible families out of their programs and to get those who’ve surmounted the barriers out — work-ready or otherwise.

As I’ve written before, states — and the District of Columbia — impose sanctions, up to and including full benefits cut-offs when parents don’t do what they’ve been told to. Or rather, when some authority decides they haven’t.

A family that’s lost its benefits altogether doesn’t count as part of the caseload. So it’s not surprising to learn that some agencies have seized on every occasion to impose so-called full family sanctions — or in some cases, reportedly trumped one up.

The discussion draft would eliminate the caseload reduction credit — and thus, one hopes, overuse of sanctions, which inevitably punish children.

These aren’t the only features that make the draft a surprisingly strong step toward improving the altogether worst part of our safety net. (Ruthless cutting here to control post length.)

What will come of the draft remains to be seen. But we can at least hope for a bill with all the draft’s good features, plus good revisions, good answers to the open questions and a substantial block grant increase.

Better that than to focus on the hurdles such a bill would have to clear to get to the President’s desk.

Note: Those of you who wish I’d left the other features in may find them in two of the publicly accessible sources I used — comments by CLASP’s chief TANF expert and testimony by her counterpart at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.


Hopes for a Better TANF Program Undercut by Lack of Funding

August 24, 2015

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families just had its 19th birthday. It’s long overdue for an overhaul. And we just may see one before the end of the year.

Congress last reauthorized TANF 10 years ago. By and large, it made a flawed program worse — assuming, as I think we should, that it’s supposed to provide a safety net for poor families, while helping parents prepare for and find jobs that enable them to support themselves and their children.

Now the House subcommittee responsible for TANF seems poised to finish a reauthorization bill. And surprisingly, the discussion draft responds to concerns that progressive advocates, as well as some state administrators have raised for a long time.

I say “surprisingly” not only because Republicans control the subcommittee, but because Congressman Paul Ryan, who now chairs the full Ways and Means Committee, has often cited TANF as the model safety net program.

The bill, which is still a work in progress, is far from problem-free. Most importantly, it fails to do one big thing. And that will mean either no new law or some harmful consequences.

The one big thing is to boost the block grant — the federal government’s share of money for the benefits and services states’ programs provide. It’s been stuck at the same level as when TANF began. So it’s lost about a third of its real dollar value.

The draft would provide not a penny more. At the same time, it would require states to do two things they don’t have to do now — develop genuinely individualized plans for TANF families and track employment-related outcomes for those that leave the program.

The new mandates are surely promising, though the latter warrants revisions, as CLASP’s detailed comments show. They would also, however, require investments of administrative resources.

Other changes would tend to offset the administrative burden, but states would still come up short on funds to make those outcomes as good as they might otherwise be.

At the same time, the draft would eliminate the TANF Contingency Fund — a pot of money that states can tap (until it runs dry) when a recession or other hit to their economy indicates they’ll have more families to serve.

States would have as much flexibility as ever to cope with funding crunches by dropping their already-low income eligibility ceilings, reducing the lifetime time limits for participation, as some states have eagerly done, and/or by other measures to shrink their caseloads, e.g., pre-enrollment job search requirements, costly, ineffective, but still humiliating drug tests.

The draft would eliminate a major incentive states have to do reduce their caseloads by any or all of these, as well as by doling out so-called full family sanctions, i.e., total benefits cut-offs, which also reduce the caseload count.

But the fixed block grant funding level, plus the loss of extra funds in extra-bad times would leave states with another incentive to serve as few families as they can — and to forgo their new opportunities to improve employment prospects for those they do.

I’ll return to the promising features I’ve referred to — and a couple I haven’t — in a separate post. I’ve begun with the big problem because they’ll all be for naught if the federal government fails to do its share for our country’s poorest families, as it has — and increasingly so — for most of the last 19 years.


Steps Toward Helping Low-Income People Get Connected to the Internet

June 22, 2015

You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have swift, reliable access to the internet. You couldn’t be reading it if I didn’t.

We all, I suppose, take our high-speed connections for granted — except when our service is interrupted. Yet costs are apparently a barrier for well over half of our country’s poorest households. And that barrier is a barrier to many opportunities we also take for granted.

Two Democratic Senators and a Congresswoman, also a Democrat, have proposed a bill that could enable low-income people to afford broadband connections. The Federal Communications Commission has just voted to explore a somewhat similar plan the Chairman floated,  thanks to the Democratic majority there.

Both would expand the Lifeline Assistance program, which currently provides low-income households with discounts for landline or cell phone service. It’s what you may have heard of as free Obama phones, an allegedly fraudulent, wasteful use of our taxpayer dollars — another liberal “dole-out to dead beats” on welfare.

But the phone service isn’t free. And though welfare recipients are poor enough to qualify for discounts, eligibility extends to households at or below 135% of the federal poverty line and to some whose incomes are higher, e.g., certain recipients of federal housing vouchers.

The dollars that pay for the discounts don’t come out of our federal taxes. They’re often collected as one of those mysterious charges tacked onto our monthly phone rate. And the Lifeline program dates back to the notoriously liberal Reagan administration.

Both the Democrats’ bill and the FCC Chairman’s plan seek to bridge the so-called digital divide — a marked disparity in ready access to a broadband connection that’s increasingly income based. In 2013, only 42% of the poorest households had high-speed internet service in their homes, as compared to 90% of those with incomes of at least $100,000.*

Don’t suppose I need to say that children are now expected to do homework involving internet use or that it’s all but impossible to find and apply for jobs, except via the internet. Far less possible these days to develop job-related skills and networks — or to keep up with relevant news.

So it would seem that a Lifeline expansion would make it somewhat easier to move up from the bottom of the income scale. It could also lead to better opportunities in other ways, e.g., by creating a broader base of informed, engaged voters.

Neither the FCC Chairman’s plan nor the Congressional Democrats’ seems like quite the right answer, however. Both would require Lifeline beneficiaries to choose between a high-speed connection and phone service.

And the Chairman apparently envisions the same subsidy — just $9.25 a month. That’s obviously less than what companies generally charge for phone service.

It’s a much smaller fraction of a DSL connection, which cost, on average, $59.40 a month two years ago, according to an FCC estimate. Hard to imagine that many poor and near-poor households would pick up the whole cost of phone service, plus anything close to $50 a month.

Harder to imagine many would opt for the ‘net instead of a phone, if for no other reason than safety.

My mother-in-law, for example, is now in her mid-90s and coping with frailities common to someone of her age, e.g., a tendency to lose her balance and fall. She has one of those low-cost phone services, with an automatic dial for emergencies.

It’s been a genuine lifeline for her — and one I’m sure she’ll never swap for the chance to see photos of her grandchildren online or keep up with local news now that her hometown paper is delivered only three days a week.

The Democrats’ bill would direct the FCC to monitor prevailing broadband access prices, as well as some other relevant information, e.g., the prevailing speed households use. The agency would use these findings to set the subsidy rate.

Where the extra money would come from isn’t clear — at least, to me. If from a hike in the Universal Service Fund fee (our contribution to the subsidies), we should expect pushback. If not that, what?

The FCC will probably adopt some fleshed-out version of the Chairman’s plan. But the initiative itself will almost surely into flack on Capitol Hill, as The New York Times has predicted.

Not much enthusiasm for broadband expansion there. Only nine more Senators and House members have signed on to the proposed Broadband Expansion Act. Not a single Republican.

So it’s far from certain that we’ll soon help low-income people gain home-based access to the diverse opportunities the internet offers. And as I’ve suggested, the proposals seem problematic.

On the other hand, some influential policymakers have recognized a problem and come up with an approach to solving it. If it needs tweaks and/or clarifications, well, that’s what rulemaking and legislative processes are for.

So as with many issues affecting low-income people (and others), this one boils down to political will. Which in this case (and others), boils down to how we choose to view those low-income people and our government’s role in helping them surmount barriers that marginalize them.

* The FCC Chairman cites somewhat higher percents, based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The differences reflect differences in the income bands the ACS analysis and my source, Pew Research, use.

What Could Lift More Seniors Out of Poverty?

May 26, 2015

The senior poverty rate, according to the official measure, is lower than the rate for the U.S. population as a whole and considerably lower than the child poverty rate. It still translates into about 4.2 million people 65 and older whose incomes fell below the applicable poverty threshold last year — just $11,354 for those who live alone.

The more accurate Supplemental Poverty Measure boosts the senior poverty rate to 14.6% — about 2.3 million more people. But for Social Security benefits, the rate would have been a whopping 52.6%. This is why Social Security is justifiably called the most effective anti-poverty program we have.

Yet we do still have some 6.5 million seniors without enough income to live on. And our poverty prevention measures tend to focus on younger people, as Kevin Prindiville, the Executive Director of Justice in Aging, says.

We’ve got a battery of programs to support education and work-related training, for example. And we’ve got a spectrum of programs to prevent — or at the very least, reduce — poverty among those who find work, especially those with dependent family members. In other words, it’s not just younger people our measures focus on, but working families.

All too late, Prindiville observes, for someone in her 70s or 80s who’s struggling now after a lifetime of low-wage jobs. “We cannot just hold up our hands and say we should have helped … [seniors] 50 years ago, or helped their parents a century ago.”

So what would help them now? Prindiville proposes a five-step plan. He’s managed to get them into a single, compact post. I, as usual, want to flesh out the issues and solutions.

So I’ll deal here with the first two, overlapping steps and leave the remaining three for a followup.

Strengthen the Existing Safety Net and Social Insurance Programs*

Social Security, SSI (Supplemental Security Income), Medicare and Medicaid largely account for the 26% drop in the official senior poverty rate since 1960, Prindiville says. First and foremost, we need to protect them.

None of those proposed Social Security benefits cuts, increased Medicare cost-sharing, e.g., through a voucher plan, or tighter limits on Medicaid coverage, which we could expect to see under the Congressional Republicans’ upcoming block grant proposals.

On the strengthening side, I suppose Prindiville would endorse the latest version of what was originally the Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013.

It would change the benefits formula, providing an average of $65 a month more, and base annual adjustments on an as-yet-to-be-completed Consumer Price Index specifically for the elderly. And unlike the 2013 bill, it would ensure that formerly low-wage workers receive benefits at least big enough to lift them over the poverty line, provided they’d worked at least 10 years.

Of course, like its predecessor, the current bill would also keep the Social Security Trust Fund from coming up short on the money needed to pay full benefits past its projected insolvency in 2033.

Rather than simply scrapping the cap on payroll taxes, as some have proposed, it would trigger taxes on all income — not only wage income — over $250,000.

Improve Supplemental Security Income

Let’s just say proposals to boost Social Security retirement benefits won’t go anywhere in this Congress. So we’ll still have seniors in poverty.

We would anyway because not all seniors used to work — or have spouses that did. And even a work history often won’t yield a benefit anyone can live on unless it spans at least 35 years — this because of the way the Social Security Administration calculates benefits.

For the poorest 2.1 million seniors, SSI provides a safety net. But it’s in need of strengthening too. The maximum benefit — currently $733 a month — is nearly $250 less than would be needed to lift a single person over the poverty line.

No benefits at all for individuals whose savings and other “countable resources” are worth more than $2,000. Nor for couples who’ve more than $3,000. So seniors who’ve saved even a modest amount don’t qualify, though they surely need some stash they can draw on for expenses like Medicare deductibles and co-pays.

And as I’ve written before, the formula for SSI benefits adjusts them downward, based on other income beneficiaries receive. The adjustments kick in only if income exceeds a certain amount, however.

We see a preference for income earned from work — understandable, since it encourages SSI recipients to enter (or reenter) the workforce. For other income, the exclusion — or disregard, as Prindiville calls it — is a mere $20 a month, plus the value of a few other public benefits.

The benefits reduction for other income is dollar-for-dollar — twice as much as for wage income. This isn’t a problem for seniors only. But it’s a big problem for them because they’ll lose as much as they gain from even a piddling increase in Social Security retirement benefits.

Congress hasn’t updated the exclusions since it created the program in 1972. If they’d been adjusted to reflect consumer price increases, the unearned income exclusion would be roughly $112 today.

Bills that died in the last Congress would have addressed these problems, as well as what can be large benefits reductions when a friend of relative helps out with food, housing costs and/or utility bills.

Prindiville says he expects the bills to be introduced again this spring. Nothing thus far, but they probably will be — whether to be better fate remains to be seen. Not holding my breath, folks.

* Prindiville’s top-line recommendation implies that Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare are safety net programs like SSI and Medicaid, but they’re insurance programs because workers pay premiums of a sort, as payroll taxes. I’ve modified the recommendation accordingly because I, among others, feel it’s important to preserve the distinction.


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