What works to fight poverty?
Poverty has been in the news a lot lately. Two years ago we marked the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s famous War on Poverty. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which supplanted Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). And a GOP task force whose members were appointed by House Speaker Paul Ryan has released some broad guidelines for addressing poverty, which at the very least has meant more newspaper articles have been written about the issue.
Against this backdrop, the Coalition on Human Needs and many of our allies today co-hosted an evidence-based discussion of effective and ineffective anti-poverty programs and how the Ryan/GOP anti-poverty plan measures up.
What Works – and What Doesn’t – To Reduce Poverty and Expand Opportunity – drew nearly 100 participants to the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, and hundreds more to the Internet (the event was live-streamed across the country.)
The event, which drew House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, was cosponsored by CHN, the Center for American Progress, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, National Council of La Raza, National Low Income Housing Coalition and RESULTS.
The two-hour program began, appropriately enough, with a human needs advocate interviewing a once-homeless woman who to this day struggles to make ends meet. Olivia Golden, executive director of CLASP and a CHN board member, conducted the interview with LaJuana Clark, a native Washingtonian who after losing her job was kicked out of her home and ended up in a homeless shelter. Clark’s story has been featured on MSNBC and in the documentary How I Got Over, directed by Nicole Boxer, daughter of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. (Voices for Human Needs will bring you more about LaJuana Clark in a subsequent blog post coming soon, so stay tuned!)
The event also featured Melissa Boteach, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Boteach’s presentation — Better Lipstick, Same Pig: Strategies to respond to the House GOP poverty plan and pivot to a progressive agenda – focused not just on responding to the GOP anti-poverty plan but also on pivoting back to a progressive approach toward fighting poverty. Another important message from Boteach: It is impossible to separate the GOP anti-poverty plan from the House GOP’s budget proposal, which massively slashes human needs spending, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). “It is incumbent upon us to make sure those two things are not divorced,” she said. “We have failed if this becomes a referendum on a bad set of proposals.”
Also speaking was Liz Schott, a senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Welfare Reform and Income Support Division. Schott has worked on issues relating to TANF for practically the program’s entire existence, and has seen the impact of this key program diluted, in part because the 1996 welfare reform law ushering in TANF unwisely relied heavily on block grants.
The result? TANF today is not a model to reduce poverty. TANF cases have declined dramatically, even when the economy goes south and poverty increases. Nationally, TANF’s role as a safety net has declined sharply, and TANF provides a safety net to a very small share of families.
Other speakers featured at the event were Elizabeth Lower-Basch, CLASP director for Income and Work Supports; Jim Weill, executive director, Food Research and Action Center; affordable housing expert David Bowers, vice president and Mid-Atlantic market leader for Enterprise Community Partners, Inc.; and Sarita Gupta, executive director, Jobs With Justice.
Deborah Weinstein, CHN’s executive director, moderated the event. She concluded by challenging the audience. “We are glad there is bipartisan interest in fighting poverty. Now we have to insist that the federal government strengthens the programs that work.”