State advocacy matters in the fight against poverty

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As yesterday’s annual Census report on poverty, income, and health insurance shows, poverty is still a pressing problem in the United States. While poverty fell significantly for the second year in a row, some 40.6 million people, including 13.3 million children, lived below the official poverty line, with millions more living just on the brink. The racial disparities are also stark: both Black and Hispanic people were more than twice as likely to live in poverty as their White peers.

For good reason, much will be said about the implications of these data for federal policy fights over matters such as healthcare and spending on anti-poverty programs. But even as Capitol Hill is abuzz just after the August recess, we shouldn’t overlook what all of this means for the states — where most Beltway decisions become kitchen table realities for millions.

{mosads}Although poverty remains a persistent part of American life, the Census report reveals that federal safety net programs continue to serve as an effective tool in the fight against it. The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) — a measure that captures, among other things, the effects of income from benefits like federal food assistance and refundable tax credits—shows that anti-poverty programs helped lift tens of millions of people out of poverty last year.


This is no surprise. Research is clear that, since major components of it were launched decades ago, the federal safety net has done a great deal to curb poverty.

Yet, Tuesday’s Census report comes as those very programs are under attack. House Republicans and the Trump administration have both proposed budgets that would decimate food assistance, Medicaid, and other key income supports in order to pay for lavish tax cuts to wealthy families and corporations.

While national in scope, the carnage yielded by these cuts will largely be borne out in the states. Federal programs like food assistance and Medicaid are major sources of funding for state governments. Slashing billions from these programs would, in effect, shift these costs to the states. State governments would face a dubious ultimatum: try to address the need with the state’s own resources, or let need go unaddressed. As past reforms of similar nature have shown, when need goes unaddressed poverty and suffering sharply increase, and our country’s ladder of upward mobility is fundamentally weakened.

On top of these federal battles, there are other troubling actions unfolding in the states.

Take what’s at stake with Medicaid, for example, a healthcare program that has taken center stage in the fight over the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As conservative attempts to slash federal funding continue, efforts to reduce eligibility are also heating up in the states. Maine recently applied for a federal waiver that would allow it to impose work requirements, co-payments, premiums, and asset caps on Medicaid recipients. Wisconsin, Kentucky, Utah, Indiana, Arizona, and Arkansas have made similar requests. These are measures that, whatever their intent, only serve to block low-income people from accessing the healthcare they need to be employed and productive.

Emboldened and enabled by the Trump administration, some state and local governments will likely try similar attacks on other key programs. While less sensational and perhaps on a lower scale relative to those coming from Capitol Hill and the White House, these efforts promise to deliver the same results — more poverty and suffering, less opportunity, and a far less fair and just country. Such attacks must be met with as much resistance as those being waged in D.C.

States and localities can also strive for progress against poverty. For example, Illinois in recent years expanded access to federal food assistance to some 40,000 working families. Several states have supplemented the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to boost the income of low-income workers. And of course, there are still 19 states that could expand Medicaid eligibility under the ACA.

To be sure, the federal government has an indispensable role to play in fighting poverty and promoting upward mobility, as Tuesday’s Census report shows. And those committed to reducing poverty and racial inequities must continue to protect and expand that role tirelessly.

But state and local advocacy also matters. This is where federal decisions play out, and it’s where many other decisions make a crucial difference, one way or the other, for the millions of people living in or near poverty.

John Bouman is the President of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

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