Rejoice! According to a recent report by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, the War on Poverty is “largely over and a success” – we finally won?! Yes indeed. The White House Report, co written by the conservative Heritage Foundation, Expanding Work Requirements in Non Cash Welfare Programs , claims that if you combine government assistance with personal earnings, very few Americans fall below the official poverty line – which most experts agree is a wholly inadequate and outdated measure.
Therefore, it’s time to require able bodied recipients to work at least 20 hours per week or lose their benefits. After all, it’s for their own good, to “increase self sufficiency” and reduce “dependence on government,” while saving precious taxpayer dollars to boot. The CEA says less than 50% of this population currently meet this standard and it’s time for those slackers to step up or go hungry. After all, didn’t John Smith tell the Virginia colonists, following St. Paul, the “those that don’t work won’t eat?”
Needless to say, most liberal groups vociferously disagree with the methodology, conclusions and basic sanity of the report. The Kaiser Family Foundation finds that 62% of SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) recipients work full or part time, while the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says over 75% of beneficiaries are working within a year. Nearly all agree that the vast majority of program participants are children, elderly and disabled, while other “able bodied” adults may be in poor health, caring for children or older relatives, students or working in low paid jobs with irregular work schedules. They also point out enforcing these requirements would call for a significant increase of new bureaucrats to monitor the program, offsetting much of the projected savings.
Paul Krugman’s recent column, “The GOP’s War on the Poor”, points out the manifest hypocrisy of the proposal. He notes that in 2014 House Speaker Paul Ryan declared the War on Poverty had failed, so it was time to reduce benefits that weren’t helping lift people out of poverty. It seems the whole point is to cut benefits, regardless of their effectiveness and level of need. This is driven more by ideology, politics and a desire to punish the “takers” than any professed desire to help low income people achieve “self sufficiency.”
David Leonhardt, in the New York Times on July 11, noted that the minimum annual family income of the top 1% of earners recently hit $607,000, a new record. Meanwhile, the recent Republican tax cut has resulted in a deficit financed $111 billion yearly windfall for the wealthy, who will reap 60% of the benefits. Since the entire SNAP budget amounts to $68 billion annually, only a small fraction of which goes to the “able bodied” poor, saving money is hardly the top GOP priority. Rather, punishing the poor and redistributing wealth to the rich remains their lodestar, as it has been since St. Ronald Reagan took office in 1981.
It turns out work requirements are already part of the SNAP program, inserted in the “welfare reform” law of 1996. The Obama Administration, in 2009, allowed certain high unemployment states to expand eligibility during the Great Recession, from 130% of the official poverty line ($27,000 for a family of 3) to 160% ($33,000). The Republican proposal would return eligibility to 130% and increase the mandatory work age to 59, from 49 currently. As in 1996 unemployment hovers around 4%, labor is scarce (though wages have barely budged) and we need to drag more low income people, kicking and screaming, into the workforce.
I worked as an employment adviser in a welfare to work agency in Philadelphia from 1998 – 2001. I always said my job was “to turn the welfare poor into the working poor.” We placed recipients in low wage jobs they could have gotten on their own and supervised them for 3 – 6 months. The primary beneficiaries, as usual, were employees like myself, who earned a decent salary with health benefits and a 401 K. The workers remained poor, but at least they had Medicaid, food stamps and a child care subsidy. Do they still?
Cash welfare is now nearly dead. The level of benefits (around $400 per month for a family of three) hasn’t changed since I started in 1998 (!), while housing, health and child care costs have soared. Now they’re coming after non cash benefits, lest anyone other than the top 1% ever get any advantage they don’t “deserve.”
Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, estimates 92,000 Pennsylvanians, including 45,000 Philadelphia residents, would lose benefits under the new rules. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities extends that figure nationally to over 2 million Americans. Recently a federal judge struck down Kentucky’s effort to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients on the sensible grounds that it doesn’t advance the program’s core mission – to extend health care to the poor. Sounds reasonable, no?
Food and health care are not luxury goods to be reserved as a reward for the “deserving.” They are core aspects of the basic right to life Republicans rhetorically champion. These are enshrined in the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights and over a century of Catholic Social Teaching. How about, instead of forcing the poor into low wage work, we ensured that anyone willing and able to work could find a full time job at a living wage, with health care? Then they wouldn’t rely on government and our miserly charity to survive in the first place. Let my people eat – and live!