This Week in Poverty: Bigfoot, Nessie and Paul Ryan

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann writes a weekly roundup on the topic, “This Week in Poverty.” Share your thoughts about these must-read stories and always feel free to suggest your own in the comments section.

“What’s really at work here is the spirit of the Lord,” would-be Vice President Paul Ryan said in a speech on poverty and upward mobility before conservative Ohioan churchgoers on Wednesday. “And there is no end to the good that it can inspire.”

Paul Ryan during a campaign rally at the Walter B. Waetjen Auditorium at Cleveland State University, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

But apparently there is an end — because it can’t inspire anyone on the Republican ticket to deliver an honest speech about poverty.

Sure, Ryan and Governor Romney repeatedly recite the number of people living in poverty or needing food stamps, using the statistics as a bludgeon against President Obama’s record. But beyond that? Bigfoot and Nessie got nothing on the myths these guys spin, and they are just about as fact-based.

“In this war on poverty, poverty is winning,” Ryan declared.

Except that poverty would be twice what it is today — nearly 30 percent — were it not for the safety net Ryan objects to.

No one disagrees with the notion that ideally people would need no assistance, and that good jobs with family-supporting wages and health care benefits would be available for all. But we live in a country where 50 percent of the jobs pay less than $34,000 a year, and 25 percent of jobs pay less than the poverty line for a family of four (less than $23,000 annually).

“We’re still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty,” Ryan insisted.

In fact it’s Ryan who is entirely focused on how much government spends on antipoverty measures — and wildly exaggerating those figures at that (read on). Advocates, researchers, and policymakers closely examine which programs are lifting people out of poverty, and which aren’t. For example, we can see how effective unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), food stamps (SNAP), and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) have been in lifting millions of people above the poverty line. Just as we can see the ineffectiveness of cash assistance (TANF) — a block grant to states that Ryan touts as a model for what we should be doing with Medicaid and SNAP.

“President Clinton and the Congress recognized that it would be a good idea to give states more power to tailor welfare to the unique needs of their citizens,” said Ryan. “Mitt Romney and I want to apply this idea to other anti-poverty programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps.”

Ryan is alluding to the TANF program created under welfare reform in 1996, and he and the Republicans aren’t alone in misleading the public about its effectiveness — many Democrats are complicit as well.

The fact is that for every 100 families with children in poverty, only twenty-seven now receive cash assistance — down from sixty-eight prior to welfare reform. The benefit level in most states is below 30 percent of the poverty line — less than about $5,400 for a family of three. Further, with states given wide discretion over eligibility and time limits — or even using TANF block grants to plug state budget holes — we now have fifty different systems in place. That means in Wyoming, about 4 percent of the state’s poor families with children receive cash assistance. In Mississippi, it’s approximately 10 percent. But in Washington State, for every 100 families with children in poverty, nearly 50 receive cash assistance. Just looking at the varying cash assistance programs makes it clear that this assertion by Ryan simply isn’t true: “There’s a consensus in this country about our fundamental obligations to society’s most vulnerable. Those obligations are not what we’re debating in politics.”

Ryan also arguably whitewashes the history of welfare reform, or at best cherry-picks his intelligence. He attributed the employment successes in the immediate aftermath of welfare reform to the new legislation rather than to the booming economy of the mid-1990s, and doesn’t look at the full sixteen years of the program to draw his conclusions.

“Instead of seeing increases in hunger and poverty, we saw welfare enrollment drop dramatically, as millions of our fellow citizens gained new lives of independence,” Ryan said. “We saw child poverty rates fall over 20 percent in four years — and we saw employment for single mothers rise.”

It’s true that in those early years of unprecedented economic growth, some people were fortunate enough to rise above poverty through jobs, or jobs combined with assistance. But the lesson of the decade following welfare reform is that those who weren’t able to find jobs fell into deep poverty — living below half the federal poverty line (less than $9,000 annually for a family of three today) — no longer able to get cash assistance that was left to the discretion of the states. In 2005 — according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) analysis using the National Academy of Sciences recommended poverty measure — had the safety net been as effective as it was prior to welfare reform, there would have been 1.1 million children in deep poverty; instead there were 2.4 million. This trend has continued — the latest US Census Bureau data reveals 20.4 million people in deep poverty, including more than 15 million women and children. That’s up from 12.6 million people in 2000 — a 62 percent increase.

The TANF block grant is also funded at the same level as it was in 1996 — it wasn’t indexed for inflation — so it has lost about 30 percent of its value and reaches fewer people. In fact, during the recession — when we saw the greatest need for assistance since the Great Depression — TANF caseloads barely budged or even declined in some states. In contrast, food stamps rose from helping 26 million to 46 million people — responding to increased need just as the program was designed to do. As people return to work with decent wages, food stamp caseloads will decline. Finally, the improvements in child poverty rates that Ryan alluded to were lost with the recession — as were the early gains in single mother employment.

But facts be damned, Ryan offered up this assessment as to why people in poverty are struggling today: “Here’s the problem: The welfare-reform mindset hasn’t been applied with equal vigor across the spectrum of anti-poverty programs.”

What would “the welfare reform mindset” — also known as the block grant — mean to Medicaid and food stamps?

According to the CBPP, Ryan’s Medicaid plan calls for $810 billion in cuts, plus savings of $1.6 trillion achieved through repealing the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and its subsidies to help low- and moderate-income people purchase health insurance. The Center for American Progress Action Fund writes that the cuts would cause 31 million Americans to lose access to health insurance over the next 10 years — predominantly children, seniors, people with disabilities, and the working poor. Ryan also proposes $134 billion in cuts to food stamps (SNAP), which according to the CBPP, would result in as many as 8 million to 10 million people being cut from the program. In all, the CBPP reports that Ryan would get at least 62 percent of his $5.3 trillion in nondefense budget cuts over ten years “from programs that serve people of limited means.”

Ryan attempts to justify his drastic cuts through bogus assertions such as this one: “Total federal and state spending on means-tested programs came to more than one trillion dollars… For that amount of money, you could give every poor American a check for $22,000… We spend all that money attempting to fight poverty through government programs.”

But we don’t. Earlier this week, author and Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman took on that recycled conservative talking point.

He noted that nearly half of that money is spent on Medicaid “with the bulk going to pay hospitals and nursing homes and physicians.” The $1 trillion figure also includes the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credits — which reward low-wage workers (including people above the poverty line) with refundable tax credits and have enjoyed longtime bipartisan support. These credits have also been linked to raising standardized test scores of children in low-income families and yet the Ryan-led House would let the expansion of the EITC and the CTC expire. Programs such as Head Start, community development programs, and child care “help low-income children grow up and find their way out of poverty,” Edelman writes. Food stamps, housing vouchers, Pell grants, and job training are all responses “to the disastrous state of our labor market that is leaving millions of hard workers in poverty or close to it.”

Ryan took issue with these kinds of government investments in families, saying, “The real debate is about whether they are best [made] by private groups, or by the government; by voluntary action, or by more taxes and coercive mandates from Washington.” His vision is one of “churches and charities and friends and neighbors” making a difference in people’s lives in lieu of current government investments. He shared some stories about people doing on-the-ground work in communities, trying to make a difference, “and the needy people who have encountered them feel a presence greater than just one compassionate soul.”

Aside from his patronizing view of people living in poverty as “needy people,” Ryan’s sense of the scale at which NGOs and individuals can operate is completely skewed.  Katie Wright, research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, writes, “Should cuts to supplemental nutrition assistance in the Ryan budget take effect, churches across America would need to come up with $50,000 each to make up the difference.”

Fifteen years ago, labor economist Rebecca Blank made the point that replacing the $77 billion a year that the federal government spent on AFDC (TANF’s predecessor), food stamps, and cash assistance to the elderly poor would require “every one of the 258,000 religious congregations (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise) that exist in this country to raise an additional $300,000 per year in all future years… and spend all of the increase on services for the poor. Alternatively, if this giving is done through private charitable organizations that serve the poor, it would require those groups to raise over seven times more in private donations than they currently receive.”

But perhaps the thing that is most damning to the world according to Ryan is this: if indeed it is the safety net that is holding people back, shouldn’t we see lower poverty rates in the states where the safety net gets out of the way? And yet consider the states with the worst child poverty rates: Mississippi, 32 percent; Louisiana, 29 percent; South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas — 28 percent…. According to First Focus, “States with traditionally high overall rates of child poverty also tend to be states with lower levels of public spending on children… and also areas that collect a significant amount of state revenue in ways detrimental to lower-income families.”

Here’s the terrible, terrible thing about facts: they tend to get in the way of things we might otherwise like to believe in — like Bigfoot, Nessie, and Ryan’s account of how the Spirit moves.


This week, Florida’s Broward County took a firm stand against the stealing of workers’ wages, passing the Wage Recovery Ordinance despite strong opposition from business groups. Broward is now officially the second county in Florida to implement this program, after Miami-Dade, which passed the first ordinance in 2010 and so far has been able to recover $511,429.26 in unpaid wages through conciliation. Broward’s Wage Recovery Ordinance creates a resource for thousands of workers who currently have nowhere to turn when they do not receive their earned wages.

“We understand some business owners may need more education on wage and hour laws, but that should not be at the expense of workers who are not being paid and have no reasonable way to recover the salaries they need to subsist,” says Jeanette Smith, Director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice (SFIWJ). “What we don’t understand is why some business associations are so intensely opposed to an ordinance that will protect honest businesses and will put money in the pockets of Broward consumers, [and] positively affect Broward’s overall economy?” SFIWJ is a member of the Florida Wage Theft task Force, a coalition of organizations that has worked closely with workers and community groups to support the Ordinances in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and now in Broward.

Get Involved

More than 1,900 organizations nationwide, representing millions of people, have come together in support of four principles to guide our nation on a responsible path in the upcoming budget negotiations.

Under the coalition name of Strengthening America’s Values and Economy (SAVE) for All, these groups have signed a letter to Congress urging that any budget plan: (1) protect low-income and vulnerable people; (2) promote job creation to strengthen the economy; (3) increase revenues from fair sources, and (4) seek responsible savings by targeting wasteful spending in the Pentagon and elsewhere.

There is great diversity in the groups and individuals who have signed the letter: more than 275 faith-based organizations, dozens of housing and homelessness service providers, labor, emergency food providers and other anti-hunger groups, community action agencies, children’s service providers, small businesses and small business organizations, physicians and health groups, women’s organizations, peace groups and many others.

The letter has been sent to every and senator and representative’s office and is also being used now by organizations and individuals in meetings or calls with their representatives.

You can get involved in this effort here.

New Study

“We have had tremendous success in talking about the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Malika Saada Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls, at a Congressional briefing on a new report — Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons from the States. “And we have really changed the thinking of young people behind bars, and what they must endure behind bars. But it is not the girls’ narrative, which is one of physical and sexual abuse and trauma, and how that leaves girls to be vulnerable and then pipelined into our juvenile justice system.”

Authored by Peter Edelman of the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy, and the Center’s former executive director, Liz Watson, the report grew out of a policy series focusing on how public systems respond to the challenges facing marginalized girls and young women.

It explores the impact of poverty and violence on girls’ lives; investing in community-based supports that keep girls out of the system; providing girls with gender and culturally responsive, trauma-informed services and support; and keeping girls out of juvenile prisons and the adult criminal system. The report bases its federal and state recommendations on successful reforms in Connecticut, Florida and Stanislaus County, California.


My good friend, Greg Asbed, member of the heroic Coalition of Immokalee Workers, was presented with the2012 John Egerton Prize by the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA).

In the Atlantic Monthly, Corby Kummer described the SFA as “this country’s most intellectually engaged (and probably most engaging) food society.” The prize was created in honor of Egerton’s work “chronicling and championing the cause of civil rights in America, and for his contribution to our understanding of the power of the common table.”

Before accepting the award, Asbed participated in a panel discussion along with Georgia cattleman Will Harris and restaurateur Nick Pihakis. They discussed the hidden costs of a food system that focuses on producing cheap food, and paths toward producing sustainable and affordable food that protects the people, animals, and environment involved in its production.

I know Greg will want nothing to do with this write-up. But he will want people to get involved with CIW here.

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City Life/Vida Urbana — a Boston-based bilingual community organization that has fought for racial, social, and economic justice and gender equality for twenty-eight years—received the 36th Annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). The award is named for former IPS colleagues Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt, who were killed on September 21, 1976, when agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet detonated a car bomb. The award ceremony honors the memory of Letelier and Moffitt while celebrating new heroes of the human rights movement from the United States and the Americas.

In response to the foreclosure crisis, City Life/Vida Urbana launched the Post-Foreclosure Eviction Defense campaign to help keep people facing foreclosure in their homes. Victories won by hundreds of organized families are building public and political pressure, and driving legislative reform and similar campaigns across the region.

Articles, Briefs, and other Resources

Baltimore Witnesses to Hunger Exhibit,” Center for Hunger-Free Communities

Child Care Increasingly Expensive, Even As Public Assistance Declines,” Sheila Bapat

How Mandatory Minimums Forced Me to Send More Than 1,000 Nonviolent Drug Offenders to Federal Prison,” Judge Mark W. Bennett

The tenacity of school segregation,” Steve Bogira

Debate debate on single mothers and crime,” Phillip Cohen

Justice Department alleges ‘school to prison pipeline’ in Mississippi,” Susan Ferriss

Welfare Changes Save State Money, Fate of Ex-Recipients Unclear,” Ron French

“One Degree of Separation: Education, Sex, and Family Planning among New York City’s Homeless Mothers,” Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness.

Dream Defenders Will Address School-to-Prison Pipeline During the Last Presidential Debate,” Allison Kilkenny

Documenting Hunger and Poverty,” Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast

A blueprint for economic mobility,” Maurice Lim Miller

Ten Worst States for Women’s Wage Equality,” National Women’s Law Center

Making Bail Better,” Nick Pinto

Stop the witch-hunt against single parents!” Elianne Ramos

Stop Killing Our Youth: Protest Against Police Brutality,” Francis Reynolds (VIDEO)

An odd conservative split on Propositions 34 and 36,” Dan Turner

Preventable Chronic Disease in US Metropolitan Areas,” Timothy Waidmann

Congress still has time to get it right,” Deborah Weinstein

Catholics want more focus on poverty than abortion: survey,” Mary Wisniewski

9 Ways Ryan Rhetoric Masks Reality of his Proposals,” Katie Wright

Paul Ryan Takes a Side in The War on Poverty: He’s Against What Works,” John Nichols

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $23,021 for a family of four): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including more than one in three African American and Latino children. Poorest age group in the country.

Poverty rate among families with children headed by single mothers: 40.9 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Youth employment: lowest level in more than 60 years.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Gender gap, 2011: women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Gender gap, 2010: women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.

People age 50 and over at risk of hunger every day: 9 million.

Percentage of US population in poverty at some time before age 65: over 50 percent.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high — nearly 30 percent of population.

Impact of public policy, 1964–1973: poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

Quote of the Week

“In the year 2037, could we still be sending our white children and our black and brown children to separate schools? Aren’t we better than that? Not yet we aren’t.”

—Steve Bogira, “The Tenacity of School Segregation

Research assistance provided by Christie Thompson.

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