An inaccurate and counter-productive pattern has reemerged of late in the way many powerful politicians talk about and understand poverty. And it is driving bad policy.
The claims go something like this: the poor aren’t really poor and it is their own laziness that is the source of their demise. Such myths have persisted and arisen periodically through much of American history, of course, but they have truly flourished in recent years and serve today as the justification for the latest effort to dismantle what is left of the American safety net.
Let’s hope for all our sakes that, this time, policymakers break the pattern once and for all.
Unfortunately, right now, policymakers’ decisions are being driven by the idea that government is not only unable to build a path to the middle class but that it actually grows poverty. How else can we explain the proposals being pursued at the federal and state level?
The U.S. House voted last month to cut food assistance for four-to-six million low-income people, many who are children, seniors and families that work for low wages. In North Carolina, roughly 165,000 adults would find it harder to put food on the table. And the more recent failure of Congress to agree to fund the federal government has only made worse the already significant cuts to federal services that help parents pay for child care while they work.
Here in North Carolina, we are already dealing with efforts by state policymakers to undermine supports for those who are struggling. Policymakers, for instance, pushed through unnecessary barriers to receiving Work First assistance in the form of mandatory drug tests despite the evidence that those struggling to make ends meet are not more likely to be drug users.
State policymakers also eroded the modest insurance program designed to protect against financial ruin that can result from a job loss caused by broader economic trends. North Carolina’s dramatic unemployment insurance changes will mean that workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own will have less financial support for a shorter period of time. Jobless workers struggling to find a job when there are too few out there are almost certain to face challenges paying for the necessities of life like, food, rent and medicine,.
For those with a job — or one of the low-wage jobs comprising more of the job market — state policymakers also failed to extend a modest support proven to lift children out of poverty and keep parents connected to the labor force despite the staggering reality of low-wage work. The failure to extend the Earned Income Tax Credit will impact nearly one million working North Carolinians who receive the credit temporarily and use it to purchase gas to get to work, groceries to feed their children, and pay down debt.
Anti-poverty tools exist, such as supporting efforts to feed the hungry, offering temporary aid to jobless workers, and encouraging families to keep low-wage jobs with the goal of moving into the middle class and staying there. Data released last month makes the case: SNAP (aka Food Stamps) lifted four million Americans out of poverty, while Social Security helped 15.3 million. Without unemployment insurance, 1.7 million Americans would have been pushed into poverty. The Earned Income Tax Credit spared 5.5 million more.
Efforts at the federal and state level to reduce the reach and effectiveness of these programs can only be explained by policymakers’ commitment to an outdated argument about poverty. Unfortunately, such an approach will put North Carolina on a dangerous path. We are competing with the poorest states in our nation for top billing, with the 10th highest poverty rate and child poverty rate in the U.S.
North Carolina won’t be competitive nor will its economy be healthy unless it addresses economic hardship. And let’s be clear: this hardship is real. It’s driving parents to make tough decisions between buying food and keeping the lights on, putting gas in the car to get to work or paying rent. Our economy can’t thrive if we aren’t creating greater pathways into the middle class for these North Carolinians.
So, don’t believe the claims that come with the “blame the poor” pattern. We can win the war on poverty. It simply takes investing in what we know works and recognizing that the fates of all Americans and North Carolinians are closely intertwined.
Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center.