Last month, the Census Bureau released a supplemental poverty measurement that should serve as a wake-up call to everyone in Congress: The official poverty rate — which at 15.1 percent is already the highest it has been in almost two decades — is actually undercounting millions of Americans, including nearly 7 percent of our senior population.
In other words, one out of every six men and women in our country is now seeing the American dream fail them. To do right by them, we need to refocus our priorities and support the federal programs that have shown proven success in helping the most vulnerable to get back on their feet.
This dismal poverty snapshot by the census follows on the heels of a recent report by First Focus, which found that one of every three working families in our country, covering 40 percent of America’s children, are not making enough to guarantee a decent living standard. In other words, they are holding down jobs and still not making enough to get by. That is shameful.
Similarly, in a recent report on income inequality, the Congressional Budget Office determined that middle-class and working-class Americans have seen their wages stagnate and their median income fall over the past 30 years, even as the top 1 percent of Americans have seen their income triple, to 23 percent of the total. Put another way, a rising tide no longer lifts all boats, and America, the land that forged the largest middle class in human history during the 20th century, is rapidly becoming a nation of haves and have-nots.
How did we get to this point? After three decades of stagnant wages, families have often had to use credit and take out loans on their homes to make ends meet. The experience of the Great Recession upset this unstable system. Housing values crashed, jobs disappeared, and middle-class and working families have been squeezed. And now, even as more and more families fall ever further behind, the federal social safety net is being slashed to pieces.
The fact of the matter is, the federal government can and does make a difference in helping families get back on their feet, and stay there, during tough times. A recent study by Half in Ten found that removing the earned income tax credit from the equation would drive another 8.3 million people into poverty.
Similarly, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helps to feed more than one out of every seven Americans, and one out of every five children. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nutrition aid lifted more than 4.5 million Americans over the poverty line in 2009, including more than 2 million children and 200,000 seniors, those struggling most in this Great Recession. And yet, Republicans propose to slash SNAP’s funding by $127 billion — almost 20 percent — over the next 10 years. This would move us in the wrong direction.
To take another example, research has shown time and again that income support for parents effectively boosts employment and employment stability, increases earnings and income, reduces poverty and even improves kids’ school performance.
In 2009, we lowered the eligibility threshold for the child tax credit from $12,500 to $3,000, bringing up to $1,400 in tax relief to the families of 15.9 million children, including 5.5 million newly eligible children. But because the eligibility threshold was not set at zero, 13 million children in America — the kids we were most trying to reach — lost all or part of their child tax credit during the recession.
Lowering the child tax credit threshold to zero, economists agree, would be one of the most stimulative, targeted and efficient ways of getting the economy moving again. And yet, instead of passing targeted cuts for working families, we have worked harder in this Congress to give tax breaks to the wealthiest 2 percent and tax credits to multinational corporations that ship jobs overseas.
Every indicator suggests those groups are doing all right. It is time for Congress to represent the people who elected us and to focus once again on the needs of the vast majority of American families.
A good start would be recognizing that, yes, the federal government does play a hugely important role in alleviating poverty and inequality, and we should do everything we can to support those efforts.
That means not trying to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable. And it means making the proven federal investments — in SNAP, the child tax credit and other programs — that create jobs, pull people out of poverty and strengthen the middle class.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and is co-chairwoman of the Democratic Steering Committee.