‘Cliff’ Deal is a Decent Start for Low-Income Americans

  • submit to reddit

We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following post originally appeared in The Nation.


If you had told me in recent months that on January 2, 2013, we would have unemployment insurance extended for a year, an improved child tax credit and earned income tax credit extended for five years and no cuts to food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid or Social Security — I would have told you that you were out of your mind.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, center, returns to his office from the House chamber, as talks continue regarding the "fiscal cliff" bill passed by the Senate Monday night, on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013 at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Speaker of the House John Boehner returns to his office from the House chamber on Jan. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

I understand that the criticism coming from the left about this deal is based largely on where things stand for the next round of negotiations, and also a concern that the deal didn’t raise sufficient revenues to avert substantial cuts down the road. But I’m troubled by the lack of attention being paid to how this deal benefits the more than one in three Americans living below twice the poverty line — earning less than $36,000 annually for a family of three, and the 46 million Americans living below the poverty line (less than $18,000 annually for a family of three).

I’m reminded today of a politically active homeless woman I spoke with earlier this year, who — although she is disgusted with Republican policies — was even more frustrated with “so-called progressives” (her words) whom she said talk about caring about poor people but fail to sufficiently speak up about their issues, bring them into their advocacy work and address their concerns in an ongoing and substantive way.

So let’s look at some of the particulars of this deal and how they affect low-income Americans.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC):
These tax credits supplement the earnings of low-wage workers and kept 8.7 million people out of poverty in 2011 — pretty key, since 28 percent of workers earned poverty-level wages last year and 25 percent of all jobs in the U.S. pay less than the poverty line for a family of four (less than $23,000 annually). Republicans have been trying to limit the reach and effectiveness of both of these tax credits all year (and some Democrats indicated an openness to that position, especially with regard to the CTC). Getting a five-year extension on both — as well as for the American Opportunity Tax Credit that helps make college tuition more affordable — was certainly not a given heading into these negotiations. (It should also be noted, however, that while these provisions were extended for five years, the tax cuts for wealthier households making up to $450,000 annually were made permanent. Another downside, the two percentage-point cut in payroll taxes was allowed to lapse.)

Unemployment Insurance:
Let’s remember that without this extension, 2 million long-term unemployed people — who are disproportionately over age 50, women and minorities — would have lost their unemployment benefits as of yesterday; another 1 million would have lost benefits by April 2013, and more than 5 million people would have been without this vital assistance by the end of 2013. Unemployment Insurance lifted 2.3 million people above the poverty line in 2011, and 3.2 million the year before that. If this extension hadn’t happened — and it was by no means a given — you can bet that would have been reflected in the 2013 poverty numbers. Just the two long-term unemployed workers over 50 whom I recently spoke with — former steel worker Richard Crowe and assisted living facility worker Edith Harrison — were staring at the possibility of losing a house and ending up homeless, respectively. The $30 billion extension will also create $48 billion in economic activity according to Moody’s chief economist Mark Zandi, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates it will also create 300,000 jobs.

Food Stamps (SNAP):
A program that responded to the recession exactly as it was designed to do — lifting nearly 4 million people above the poverty line in 2011 — was facing proposed cuts of $12 billion in the House and $4 billion in the Senate. The average beneficiary household has an income of only 57 percent of the federal poverty line (about $10,200 for a family of three), and 84 percent of all benefits go to households with a child, senior or disabled person. It was feared in recent months that cuts might be included in any “Grand Bargain” at a moment when one in five children experience hunger. Instead, activists, advocates and political leaders continue the fight to protect and strengthen the program.

I understand there is still a long road ahead — Social Security, for example, which kept over 21 million people out of poverty in 2011, remains under threat. I understand that there is a fear that the GOP will repeat its insane strategy of using the debt ceiling and possible U.S. default as leverage to demand deep cuts in entitlements and other domestic programs. (And progressives and fair-minded people will have to push back against the false GOP talking point that there have been “no spending cuts” thus far. The Budget Control Act in 2011 cut domestic discretionary spending by $1.5 trillion, and will bring non-defense discretionary spending to its lowest level as a share of GDP on record.) But the fact is there were significant gains for low-income people in this deal, and none of the feared cuts have happened. So now we continue to wage the fight we need to fight — to protect Social Security, Medicaid and vital domestic programs; invest in job creation; and push for more progressive tax reform.

In the meantime, attention must be paid to what could have easily been lost — last I checked there was still a Republican House and a filibustering Senate — and what has been protected for people who are most vulnerable in these budget decisions.

  • submit to reddit

BillMoyers.com encourages conversation and debate around issues, events and ideas related to content on Moyers & Company and the BillMoyers.com website.

  • The editorial staff reserves the right to take down comments it deems inappropriate.
  • Profanity, personal attacks, hate speech, off-topic posts, advertisements and spam will not be tolerated.
  • Do not intentionally make false or misleading statements, impersonate someone else, break the law, or condone or encourage unlawful activity.

If your comments consistently or intentionally make this community a less civil and enjoyable place to be, you and your comments will be excluded from it.

We need your help with this. If you feel a post is not in line with the comment policy, please flag it so that we can take a look. Comments and questions about our policy are welcome. Please send an email to info@moyersmedia.com

Find out more about BillMoyers.com's privacy policy and terms of service.

  • TracyLee

    It would be even better if the *gains* you speak of in the deal for low income people were not just equal to *no cuts to the food stamp program, etc*. A real gain for low income people would be lifting everyone above the poverty line or at least adding to the food stamp credits which right now, for my senior mother who makes a total social security income. per month of $600, her total income, the food stamps available to her are only $20 a month. I don’t see how leaving that the same is a *gain* for a person in that situation, but as I said, if a *gain* is equal to no cut, then I guess it stays the same… still not enough for many low income people to eat and pay rent and buy their medicine all in the same month.

    More real *gains* need to be had soon for very low income people in this *wealthy* country.

  • idiosync48

    If you’re gonna go soft than just shut up and get out of the way. Your article represents the ” vote for the lesser of two evils”. You want to do that than we’re goin nowhere. Go be a Republican.

  • idiosync48

    When are you going to learn that, we not only need to upset the apple cart but, to stomp on all the apples as well. You want to make it better for future generations? You wrap glass-steagle in razor wire and make the banks give it a big hug. You tax the elite until they develop something that resembles a conscience. Then and only then you will have an economy that works for all. You want a poor class? Go live in Russia. you want one prosperous class? Reign in the crooks in this country. Prosecute, Prosecute, Prosecute until they are all serving time. legally confiscate their ill gotten gains and put people back to work.

  • idiosync48

    I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.

  • idiosync48

    And, remember this above all, People are the only reason that government is allowed to exist here. All law should originate from that sole premiss.

  • Greg

    Tracy, you are right. I misused the word “gains”. Really, I meant relative what I feared– and still fear– could come out of these budget negotiations. That things have been protected this far that I felt could be lost. Thanks for your thoughtful read and comment. –Greg

  • Greg

    Typo– should have said things have been protected “thus” far.