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ICYMI: Poverty Is Still a Thing

Last week, the Council of Economic Advisors released a report that made a number of extremely specious assertions, including that “our War on Poverty is largely over and a success.” Contrary to a recent, scathing United Nations report on extreme poverty in the United States, the CEA’s report concluded that while millions of people in this country “sometimes” struggle to make ends meet, “the vast majority of Americans are able to meet their basic human needs.”

To put it mildly, the CEA’s conclusions are vastly overblown. While poverty has certainly declined since the beginning of the War on Poverty over 50 years ago, poverty remains a significant problem in the United States: more than one in eight women 18 and older, or more than 16 million, still lived in poverty in 2016. And while poverty — whether measured by the official federal poverty guidelines or the Supplemental Poverty Measure – is an important benchmark for the economic security of people in this country, the official poverty measures do not reflect how much income families actually need to meet basic living standards. For example, in 2018, the federal poverty guideline for a family of four was $25,100 in income. But according to one think tank’s calculations, a family of four in Morristown, TN would need over $68,000 in income to have a modest, but adequate, standard of living. The CEA’s blithe conclusion that most people in this country can meet their basic needs would probably come as a surprise to the over 41 million Americans who live in households that struggle against hunger. Or to a full-time worker at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, who would need to work 99 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, in order to afford a one-bedroom home at the national average fair market rent. Or to a woman working full-time at the federal minimum wage who lacks health insurance, for whom the average cost of a full year’s worth of birth control pills is the equivalent of 51 hours of work, and for whom the up-front costs of the IUD, one of the most effective birth control methods, are nearly a month’s salary.

The CEA’s report not only misrepresents the prevalence of poverty and economic insecurity in this country, but argues that because poverty has been reduced since 1964, in no small part due to public benefits programs that help people meet basic needs, the obvious next step should be to make it harder for people to receive those benefits. Yes, they actually say that. Specifically, the CEA report argues that work requirements should be imposed in benefit programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and housing assistance – despite the fact that one very likely outcome is that fewer people would receive these critical supports as a result.

The CEA’s recommendation flies in the face of everything we know about public benefits programs and the people who rely on them to meet their families’ basic needs. It ignores the fact that the purpose of the Medicaid program is to provide health care, and that having health care helps people go to work (rather than the other way around). It further disregards the fact that SNAP and some housing assistance programs already require participants to work or participate in training or education activities under certain circumstances. The recommendation also fails to account for the fact that most participants in these programs who can work, already do work, but that the kind of work available to many low-income individuals is often unstable and characterized by low pay and few benefits, such that these workers are unable meet their families’ basic needs on their income from work alone. And finally, the report studiously ignores that studies have shown that work requirements do not increase participants’ long-term employment or help them find jobs that lift them out of poverty, but instead cut the very benefits that help them make ends meet or push them out of benefit programs altogether. Indeed, research has shown that welfare-to-work programs increased deep poverty – where family income was less than half of the federal poverty level – among children.

This Administration’s willful ignorance of the facts about poverty and public benefits programs isn’t a surprise. The Administration has repeatedly and consistently voiced its desire to cut people off public benefits with little regard for the impact on their health, well-being, and economic security. In fact, as a federal judge recently ruled when issuing an injunction blocking a Kentucky’s imposition of work requirements in its state Medicaid program, the Administration never considered whether work requirements would help accomplish the purpose of the Medicaid program: to provide health care. Rather, the Administration has advanced punitive policies grounded in negative and harmful stereotypes about those who use public benefits to meet basic living standards – like the “welfare queen” trope – that seek to demonize and shame those who find themselves on the wrong end of an increasingly unjust economy. And Republicans in Congress have eagerly taken those up as well.

As a country, we want people to have access to basic supports, including food, health care, and housing, when they need them. Women are more likely than men to face economic insecurity at all stages of their lives, due to ongoing employment discrimination, overrepresentation in low-wage jobs, difficulty accessing affordable, comprehensive health care, and greater responsibilities for unpaid caregiving. As a result, programs and policies, like Medicaid, SNAP, and housing assistance, that protect health and help people meet their basic needs are essential to women and their families. Rather than imposing punitive and ineffective work requirements that cause people to lose benefits, slashing funding for public benefits programs, or enacting massive tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations, we should make sure that women and families have all the supports they need to make ends meet.  But I haven’t yet seen the report or proposal from this administration that would make that happen – and the CEA’s recent report confirms my suspicion that I may be waiting for a while before I do.

It's time for change, and we must act now. Time's up.