Vague Pronouncements Do Not Reduce Poverty
Editor’s Note: In addition to the following piece from CHN’s Executive Director Deborah Weinstein, please see CHN’s resource page on what works – and what doesn’t – to reduce poverty and expand opportunity. The page contains information about CHN’s upcoming event on this topic, as well as CHN’s statement and statements and analysis from others related to the House GOP anti-poverty proposal.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and the House Republican Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity and Upward Mobility want to encourage work and to help people climb the “ladder of opportunity.” They want states to experiment with new ways to do this, and to be held accountable. They just don’t say how.
Their report describes a “poverty trap” in which mothers have no incentive to work because they will lose benefits nearly totaling their income gains. But the combination of earnings and benefits they describe is rare – affecting only about 3 percent of low-income mothers. Far more typically, a mother with two children who starts to work half-time at the current federal minimum wage will gain $10,000 a year, taking into account SNAP/food stamps and low-income tax credits, or $20,000 if she can work full-time.
In the event releasing their report, Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN), chair of the Nutrition Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, spoke feelingly about the anxiety of low-income parents who lose SNAP benefits as they increase work hours. The report says nothing about making more SNAP benefits available to those with earnings.
There is plenty that gets in the way of full-time work at decent wages, but the Task Force report says almost nothing about the real problems. There is silence about raising the minimum wage (although Speaker Ryan expressly opposed raising it during the report’s release), helping workers with predictable scheduling of hours, more help with child care, or required paid leave. The report acknowledges that low-income workers need more training, but does not say how that will be funded.
Funding, in fact, is a gaping hole in these pronouncements. It costs money to give people the tools to escape poverty. But the budget approved by the House Budget Committee earlier this year would cut low-income programs by $3.7 trillion over 10 years, mostly in health care, but also cutting SNAP by $150 billion (a 30 percent cut between 2021-2026), and cutting Pell Grants and other low-income education programs. Does this Task Force disavow these cuts?
Speaker Ryan and the members of the Task Force are seeking evidence of good outcomes from anti-poverty programs, something no one can oppose. But they resolutely refuse to recognize the growing body of evidence, amassed over decades, showing that poor children benefiting from food, housing, early childhood education and cash assistance grow up to go farther in school and to earn more. These programs should be expanded and improved, not cut.
While the report mostly chooses rhetoric over specific proposals, it does hint at an intention to reduce cash assistance. In one very troubling example, it criticizes Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for children with disabilities, calling for “access to needed services in lieu of cash assistance.” Children who receive SSI have severe and long-term disabilities, requiring time and expense that diminish their parents’ ability to work. Denying cash assistance to these families will drastically worsen their ability to provide for their children’s significant needs.
The report vaguely favors giving states the authority to put programs together to tailor resources to meet low-income people’s needs. This appears to be a nod to Speaker Ryan’s past recommendation to create “Opportunity Grants” – block grants to states that allow them to change rules in programs including SNAP, low-income housing assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and child care. It is also similar to the House Agriculture Committee’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization proposal to allow three states to take a fixed and reduced funding level and change school meals program standards as they choose. There should be no doubt that freezing or reducing funding while allowing states to change program rules is no way to reduce poverty or increase opportunity. Instead, it will give states more incentives to deny help to people who need it.