'Missing In Action': Congress Ignores America's Poverty Crisis


WASHINGTON -- At a time when Republicans on Capitol Hill are expressing outrage over canceled White House tours, something more deserving of outrage is taking place: tens of millions of the nation's most vulnerable are taking hits on all sides. The nation's poverty rate is frozen at a high of 15 percent. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, for the most part, aren't even talking about it.

"Missing in action," Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said of Congress' record on poverty.

It has been a topic of discussion among Washington lawmakers in fleeting moments. Language about making poverty a national priority found its way into the Democratic Party platform last year and into President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in February. Democrats tucked a line into their budget proposals this year calling for a strategy to cut poverty in half in 10 years.

Yet the issue has all but disappeared from the legislative agenda in Congress as lawmakers focus squarely on deficit reduction. Obama, too, has been largely silent on the issue, and has even proposed cutting Social Security -- a key tool for combating poverty. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a leading voice for the poor in the Senate, has fumed that Obama is caving to Republicans on the issue at the expense of "millions of working people, seniors, disabled veterans, those who have lost a loved one in combat, and women."

The statistics are staggering. According to the Census Bureau, the nation's poverty rate is at its highest level in decades. More than 46 million people -- one in seven Americans -- are living below the poverty line, 16.4 million of them children. Another 30 million Americans are just a lost job or serious illness away from joining them. And in the last six years alone, more than 20 million people have joined the ranks of those relying on food stamps to get by.

Meanwhile, the rich are only getting richer. Income inequality in the United States is greater now than at any time since 1929. It has gotten so severe that, according to a report by the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, low-earning workers in the United States are actually worse off than low-earning workers in all but seven similarly developed countries.

Given these figures, it is "unfathomable" that poverty is not "at the top of everybody's priority list," Fudge told The Huffington Post.

Many economists agree that the most effective thing Congress has done for poor people in recent years was pass the stimulus package in 2009. It was one of the first bills Obama signed into law as president, and it included substantial benefits for the poor, including an expansion of the child tax credit and new funds for child care, job training and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the nation's principal welfare program.

The package is credited with saving or creating 2.5 million jobs, growing the economy by up to 3.8 percent and keeping the unemployment rate from hitting 12 percent. As bad as things are now, they could have been much worse, economists say.

Given the subpar unemployment rate -- it's been hovering just below 8 percent for months -- and the worsening conditions for the poor, some say the obvious response from Congress should be another stimulus.

"It would be one thing if this were happening and there wasn't something we could do," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at EPI. "The thing that makes this tragic and sick is that Congress could do a stimulus bill and bring the unemployment rate down relatively quickly, and they're choosing not to."

Shierholz acknowledged that the idea of Congress passing a stimulus "sounds ridiculous" given that lawmakers are banging the drum on austerity right now. But the economics are clear.

"The increase in the poverty rate that we've seen since 2007, we could bring that down if we wanted to," she said. "It is crisis number one. But with this Congress right now, it's just a question of trying to keep them from doing harm. We're actually implementing austerity policies right now, which is absolutely wrongheaded."

Those austerity policies include the sequester, $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that Congress agreed to let take effect on March 1, which will come down hard on the poor. That belt-tightening comes on top of the more than $1.5 trillion in spending cuts that Congress has passed in the past several years.

From a political standpoint, it's not hard to see why lawmakers wouldn't want to talk about poor people. Poverty isn't the most glamorous topic. It doesn't have powerful lobbying groups behind it that can make or break someone's reelection, and it doesn't ignite people's passions in the same way that gay marriage or gun control does. Politicians in both parties rarely bring up poverty on the campaign trail.

"How many times throughout the presidential election or in congressional elections do you ever hear the word 'poor?'" Fudge asked. "It does not poll well. It is not a word used often."

But polling aside, the reality is services for the poor are taking more and more hits in many districts, a fact that isn't necessarily reflected in the voting records of the lawmakers who represent them. Half In Ten, a campaign focused on cutting the nation's poverty rate in half in 10 years, released a chart that breaks down which lawmakers represent the poorest districts. While the chart draws from data that was released prior to congressional redistricting in 2012, an analysis of Republican lawmakers' districts before and after redistricting reveals a number of members with high poverty rates back home who voted last month to pass the budget put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which would decimate funding for programs for the poor, disabled and elderly.

Budgets aren't binding documents, but the Ryan plan is a "statement of priorities" that effectively demonstrates where lawmakers stand on poverty issues, said Melissa Boteach, the director of Half In Ten and of the Poverty and Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.

"The Ryan budget kicks 12 to 13 million people off of nutrition assistance, cuts off pathways to opportunity, slashes job training and education, and makes draconian cuts to Medicare, which serves a majority of the disabled and the elderly," said Boteach. "That's how House Republicans have outlined their priorities."

Among those who voted for Ryan's budget: Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, whose district has a roughly 28 percent poverty rate and 38 percent child poverty rate; Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.), whose district has a roughly 26 percent poverty rate and 37 percent child poverty rate; Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), whose district has a roughly 17 percent poverty rate and 25 percent child poverty rate; Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), whose district has a roughly 16 percent poverty rate and 19 percent child poverty rate; and Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), whose district has a roughly 16 percent poverty rate and a 26 percent child poverty rate.

The Huffington Post reached out to those Republican congressmen for comment. Two responded, and with the same message: deficit reduction equals poverty reduction.

"We've had record levels of government spending these past few years, yet we continue to have high levels of poverty," Gosar said. "Clearly more government spending has not restored economic growth or revived opportunity for those in search of the American dream. We need more, not less, of what we know creates growth and prosperity -- free markets, low taxes, and limited government."

"As someone who has experienced poverty, I understand the federal government's role in protecting the opportunity for every American to achieve their version of the American Dream," Yoho said. "Unless we get our fiscal house in order now, those opportunities are in danger. Fiscal responsibility at the federal level is crucial to combating poverty, and that's one of the reasons I voted for the House Budget."

Lawmakers who have championed poverty issues were beside themselves at the idea of colleagues voting to gut programs for the poor when there are so many poor people in their districts.

"It's mind-boggling," Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said. "I don't know how they treat their constituents. I don't know how they relate to their people."

But Lee knows from experience that poverty isn't a popular topic on Capitol Hill. She created an Out of Poverty Caucus in 2007 and got about four dozen lawmakers to join. In the last Congress, the caucus introduced six bills and endorsed two more that, collectively, would have beefed up programs ranging from nutrition assistance to job training to affordable housing. But none of the proposals even got a committee hearing.

Lee didn't seem disheartened. She emphasized that there are multiple ways to influence policy.

"The big, big problem and obstacle is with the Republican Tea Party Congress. They want to dismantle everything right now," she said. "Right now, I don't see a lot of momentum on poverty issues, so we're trying to build momentum on the outside. There are a lot of great campaigns."

Just about all stakeholders would agree that job creation is the best way to lift people out of poverty. But in the current Congress, the appetite for any kind of major jobs package just isn't there. Obama put forward an ambitious, $447 billion employment bill last year that many economists believed had the potential to create millions of jobs, but it was met with swift opposition from Republicans.

So what, then, does Congress plan to do about poverty in the next year and a half? Debate a handful of smaller bills. The Senate will take up a bill "sometime this year" to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, according to a top Senate Democratic aide. In the House, a Republican leadership aide pointed to three items that GOP leaders say will help the poor: a welfare reform reauthorization bill, the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills Act and a renewed focus on education.

The problem is, none of those proposals have bipartisan support. The author of the minimum wage bill, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), has been predicting GOP resistance from the moment he introduced his bill. "Republicans will throw up a smokescreen about it costing jobs," he said at the bill's unveiling.

The House Republican proposals, meanwhile, lack Democratic support, and their effectiveness is questionable. The welfare reform bill only targets 4 million of the nation's 46 million working poor, and the SKILLS Act, which would consolidate more than 30 workforce development programs into a single fund, would actually make it harder for vulnerable groups like the elderly and disabled to access job training, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

As for increasing the focus on education, it's true that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who controls which bills get House votes, recently signaled a desire to make the issue more of a priority. But his interest appears to center on school vouchers, which Democrats say would decimate public education.

So, for the time being, it looks like the nation's working class and poor won't be getting much help from their leaders on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps the best that advocates for the poor can do for now is try to prevent services from being scaled back even more. Lee said she is using her role on the House Budget Committee to try to preserve key items that Republicans have put on the chopping block, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, food stamps and unemployment insurance. Lee also has a bill that would direct federal agencies to look at their impacts on poverty, and she suggested that poverty-related amendments to Republican bills may be an option.

Lee and Fudge are also trying to keep poverty in the spotlight as much as possible. The Congressional Black Caucus is pressing the White House to create a commission on poverty, and members of the caucus are reaching out to the Republican Study Commission, which has its own anti-poverty initiative, to see if they can find ways to tackle poverty together. House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) recently launched a task force on poverty within the Democratic Caucus, which Lee will lead.

"We have to keep working at it," Lee said of forcing poverty into the forefront in Washington. "We have to focus on accountability. Congress will support an agenda if they care about it. This a political struggle like everything is."

Before You Go

1. Paul Ryan's Budget Would Kill Millions Of Jobs

How Paul Ryan's Budget Would Hurt The Poor

Popular in the Community