Opinion: Poverty met with silence

As Congress’s supercommittee started work behind closed doors last week on long-term spending cuts, there was a public display of Democrats and Republicans singing very predictable and partisan songs over President Obama’s jobs bill.

All of these songs featured clichés about not raising taxes at all — the Republican chorus — or protecting the middle class and small business from tax hikes — the Democrats and Republicans in stereo choral suite.

And then, for a moment, the singing stopped.

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The troubling moment of silence came from a Census Bureau report last week that showed a record 46.2 million Americans living in poverty last year. That is the highest number in the 52 years the statistic has been measured.

That means 2.6 million people fell into poverty in just the last year.

That prompted more silence from the big voices on Capitol Hill.

The percentage of the population who are in poverty stands at an alarming 15 percent. For black Americans, the poverty rate zoomed to 27.4 percent. Hispanic Americans’ rate of poverty climbed to 26.6 percent. Asian-American poverty hit 12.1 percent while white American poverty was at 9.9 percent.

Yet in an instant, the congressional choir returned to singing its standard songs.

Maybe the congressional leadership, the budget committees and the supercommittee did not know what to say. Maybe the many millionaires in Congress suffered their bouts of speechlessness from embarrassment.

Earlier this year, 235 House members and 40 senators voted for the Republican budget authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). The Ryan budget appears to call for the elimination of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, and for deep cuts in food stamps and Pell grants.

And the Cut, Cap and Balance Act, passed in July by the GOP House majority, and Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) proposals during the debt-ceiling talks ended longstanding exemptions to cuts on programs to keep people out of poverty.

The Bowles-Simpson proposal for balancing the budget kept those programs in place. So did the proposals from the bipartisan Gang of Six.

The Ryan budget also ends Medicare — which prevents the elderly from falling into poverty because of health problems — as a guaranteed program. It also slashes funding for programs that benefit poor children, such as Head Start and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

This is nothing to sing about.

Keep in mind that the poverty line is just $11,139 for an individual and $22,314 for a family of four. Yet 1 of every 7 Americans now falls below it. And still Congress averts its eyes and continues to sing the same old hymns to people with money to donate to political campaigns and money to lobby for their pet programs.

“Programs for the poor are not politically popular because there is no constituency,” said Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies public policy on poverty. “If it is a choice between cutting programs for veterans and cutting spending for poor mothers and infants, guess who wins? It is not that veterans shouldn’t get help. It is just the political reality.”

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Overall, more than half of the spending in the U.S. budget falls on entitlements, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and the defense budget. The so-called safety net to protect the poor makes up about 14 percent.

“These programs are not driving our budget problem,” said Indivar Dutta-Gupta, policy adviser for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “All three major deficit-reduction laws of the 1990s shielded low-income programs and actually reduced poverty even as they reduced deficits. Recently, the Bowles-Simpson commission established as a core principle for its report that deficit reduction should not increase poverty … Congress should follow its lead.”

There is no singing heralding expansion of Individual Development Accounts. IDAs help low-income families buy homes, start businesses or further their education.

Nor do we hear anything about the Savings for Education, Entrepreneurship and Down Payment (SEED) program, which helps children from low-income families work their way out of poverty through education.

I have long advocated that personal responsibility is the best way out of poverty. In my 2006 book “Enough,” I devoted an entire chapter to how this idea could be more readily applied to minority communities.
Government programs can be helpful, but ultimately it is up to the individual to do the heavy lifting and take responsibility for his or her own life.

But government of the people has to be about helping people. At a minimum, Congress should not do anything to drag more people into poverty. The poor are not going away and Congress has to know that all Americans are hearing their sad songs.


Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.