Poverty Programs That Work

In an appropriate kick off to Hunger Action Week in Seattle, a report about the success of programs like basic food assistance was released in New York on Monday.  “Policy Affects Poverty“, while only focusing on New York City, shows that an additional 250,000 people would have fallen into poverty if it were not for increased and aggressive efforts to enroll people in the basic food program.  Combined with federal tax credits like the Making Work Pay Credit and increased eligibility for the EITC kept the poverty rate stable in New York City.  With “official” unemployment at nearly ten percent for the majority of the past two years and actual unemployment near fifteen percent, stable is quite an achievement.

These programs work and as legislatures across the country and the Congress struggle to write budgets for the coming year it is unfortunate both Republicans and Democrats attempt to balance budgets by cutting these programs and others.  In December, the President negotiated away the Making Work Pay credit as he compromised with Republicans and extend the Bush-Era tax cuts.  Low-income Americans were the only people to see their taxes go up in the deal.

Following that the new Congress came into power and promptly began to grandstand about reducing the size of Government by making cuts to programs that have sustained low and middle-income Americans throughout the recession.  President Obama followed suit, compromising before he had to.  Mr. Obama released his proposed reductions to the current fiscal year (which we still do not have a budget for).  These cuts included nearly halving the LIHEAP program, which provides funding for local agencies to help vulnerable Americans keep their heat on in the winter.  He also proposed significant reductions to the Community Service and Community Development Block Grant Programs.

The Republicans, for their part, have decided that the best way to balance the budget to end funding to community health centers, which are sometimes the only health care option for the most vulnerable Americans.  House GOPers have also made reductions to Maternal and Child Health Block Grants, to HUD Community Development, and the Legal Service Corporation.  The LSC provides legal services and access to the judicial system for poor Americans.

States are suffering and are in an even more difficult position than the Federal government.  While Congress might not want to, they can propose deficit spending.  Most states must balance their budgets year in and year out.  With few options and a fair amount of new Republican legislatures that means cuts to state and municipal budgets.  Stop gap security programs like Disability Lifeline in Washington State, which provides a paltry $339 per month and basic health care for unemployable Washingtonians with disabilities, is likely to end.

Reducing funding or ending programs that keep Americans out of poverty, that provide access to food and health care and to legal services will only cost us more in the long run.  Aggressive outreach to enroll people into basic food programs means more people had money to purchase food.  Increased enrollment is vital, but just as important was raising the benefit.  The perverse thing about the basic food program is that people receive less money per person as the family grows.  While the individual benefit generally maxes out at $7 dollars, a family of two receives $12 and a family of three will get $18.  As Joel Berg, executive director of the  New York City Coalition Against Hunger said, “The added equivalent of income to buy food has been a lifesaver.”

Despite the recession, or rather because of it, now is the time to invest in the resources to keep people out of poverty.  We need to follow New York City’s lead and reach out to every eligible family to provide the information and resources and programs necessary to help them raise themselves out of poverty.  We don’t have to raise everyone’s taxes to do it, though there is something to shared sacrifice.  We can close loopholes in the tax code for corporations, we can begin the conversation about reforming Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

It is not a time to fall back on old clichés about bootstraps and pulling oneself up.  Social Security was created during the depression and has kept millions of people out of poverty.  Medicare and Medicaid were created and enhanced during times of need.  We can do it again.  And we can do it responsibly.

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