War on Poverty Hearing in the House: Chairman Ryan’s Budget Committee Witnesses Don’t Quite Toe His Line

War on Poverty Hearing in the House:Chairman Ryan’s Budget Committee Witnesses Don’t Quite Toe His Line

On July 31, The House Budget Committee held a hearing anticipating the 50 year anniversary of the War on Poverty – the beginnings of Head Start, college prep programs, Work Study, and other programs for youth, and community action programs to seek community-wide economic development.  Food Stamps, Medicaid, and Medicare were also enacted in the mid-1960s.  Chairman Ryan (R-WI) framed the hearing in this way:  over the past 50 years, we’ve spent $15 trillion on anti-poverty programs.  But now 15 percent of our people are poor – 46 million people.  So evidently these programs have not worked.

In his opening statement, Chairman Ryan said “This isn’t about cutting spending.  This is about improving people’s lives.”  But some of the Committee members, including Ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), pointed out that Chairman Ryan’s budget (passed by the House) made extreme cuts in most anti-poverty programs.  Medicaid (not even counting the cuts proposed to eliminate the new health care law), was cut by $810 billion over 10 years, and the full Medicaid cut (including de-funding the health care law) would leave 40-50 million more poor-moderate income people uninsured.  SNAP/food stamps was cut by $135 billion over 10 years, resulting in millions of people losing food.  Cuts in domestic appropriations would leave them at their lowest share of the economy since before the War on Poverty’s start in 1964.

While Chairman Ryan’s track record suggests his enthusiasm for cutting spending on anti-poverty programs, his witnesses at the hearing did not for the most part propose cuts.  Witnesses including Jon Baron of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy and Douglas Besharov of the U. of Maryland’s School of Public Policy emphasized that we should be learning from what does and does not work, and re-directing funding towards improving programs.  Mr. Baron cited research that indicated the cognitive gains made by Head Start participants was short-lived, but then added that further research shows that some Head Start programs are more effective than others; he favored applying those lessons.

Professor Besharov also disagreed with the hearing’s main premise – that poverty hadn’t declined as a result of the War on Poverty.  He pointed out that major improvements in anti-poverty programs over the past decades have expanded food stamps, low-income tax credits, Medicaid and other programs that do not count in the official poverty measure.  By his calculation, when taking those expansions into account, poverty has really declined to 7.2 percent.

Opinions differ substantially among anti-poverty advocates as to how to measure poverty and hardship today (and many believe Besharov’s estimate is too low), but there is considerable agreement that the current measure is inadequate.  The Supplemental Poverty Measure has been developed by the U.S. Census Bureau as an experimental tool to take more income and expenditures into account in assessing the extent of poverty.  It shows fewer families with young children would be defined as poor and more seniors would be, after counting the benefits of SNAP and tax credits (helpful to families with children) and the costs of medical care (a hardship for a greater proportion of older people).

The thrust of recent analyses differ with the contention that anti-poverty programs have not worked, while still pointing out that poverty remains a problem in this country that must be addressed.  Sr. Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, was the sole witness selected by Democrats on the Committee.  She described NETWORK’s “Nuns on the Bus” tours of many states, in which she met families with parents working at low wages, unable to make ends meet, other parents grappling with multiple problems including violence, depression, substance abuse and homelessness, and another woman who died of cancer for lack of health insurance.  She cited the value of SNAP and Medicaid expansions in these families’ lives, and made a strong case for raising the minimum wage and other work supports for low-wage workers.

The Coalition on Human Needs’ Executive Director Deborah Weinstein submitted written testimony at the request of Committee member Barbara Lee (D-CA).  She pointed out that even using just the official       poverty measure, poverty declined from 22.2 percent in 1960 to 11.1 percent in 1973.  Many factors contributed to cutting the poverty rate in half during that period, including more seniors benefiting from Social Security in their retirement (from 1965 to 1973, poverty among those 65 or older dropped by 43 percent).  Unemployment was generally low, and there were more manufacturing jobs with better (often union) pay.  Since 1973, erosion in the number of good-paying jobs and widening inequality has resulted in lost ground in wages and increased poverty.  But broadly shared economic growth has always been prompted by government actions – such as the building of the interstate highway system starting in the 1950s, increased funding for medical research and education, and worker protections such as raising the minimum wage.  Further progress in reducing poverty, especially in an era when corporations are not sharing their record-high profits through increased hiring or wages, will require more government investments, paid for in part by asking corporations and wealthy individuals to pay more of their share.

The hearing was an attempt to seize the terms of a national discussion about poverty expected as we head towards the January 2014 50-year anniversary of the War on Poverty.  But if the goal was to demonstrate that anti-poverty programs have not worked and were not worth the expenditure (about 12 percent of all government spending in the last 50 years, according to the Washington Post’s The Fact Checker column), the majority’s witnesses for the most part did not agree.

(For an excellent report on the hearing, see Greg Kaufmann’s This Week in Poverty blog for The NationChairman Ryan and the Real World.)        

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