By Sister Simone Campbell
The U.S. Census Bureau's release of 2012 poverty data tells us once again that millions of Americans in our wealthy nation continue to struggle at the economic margins, with no signs of progress. The nation's just-released official poverty rate in 2012 was 15.0 percent, which represents 46.5 million people living at or below the poverty line. This marks the second consecutive year that neither the official poverty rate, wages, nor the number of people in poverty was statistically different from the previous year's estimates.
Have we become so used to these annual reports that we no longer pay much attention? I hope not.
Research by the University of Michigan's H. Luke Shaefer and Harvard's Kathryn Edin shows a sharp rise in the number of people living on less than two dollars per person per day — a World Bank standard used to document global poverty. But in this case, these people live in the U.S. For some of our fellow citizens, two dollars is expected to buy, well, everything.
How is it that in the wealthiest country in the world, people can fall so far? And does it mean we are fighting the War on Poverty with a losing strategy?
People in poverty in the U.S. fit many descriptions, and to lump them together would indeed be a losing strategy. Thirteen percent are seniors who depend on Social Security and SSI. About 10 percent are people with disabilities who are unable to work, and their children. Some 61 percent are in working families.
Among these working families are the "near poor," living in urban environments where the cost of living is high and wages are low. One in four jobs pays wages below the poverty level so it shouldn't be a surprise that about 7 in 10 children in poverty live in working families. There are also those having great difficulty finding work, particularly during the recession and its aftermath. (In my experience, most people who are out of work desperately do want a job.)
Then there is the lack of affordable healthcare, with real-life consequences. Like Margaret Kistler, who became poor when she lost her job in Cincinnati during the 2008 recession. No job meant no health insurance, and she couldn't afford COBRA. When she finally got so sick that she had to go to the emergency room, she was terminally ill. Margaret died last year at age 56 of colon cancer. Had the expansion of Medicaid in the Affordable Care Act been fully implemented in 2010, Margaret could have received screening, treatment, and been a contributing member of society today rather than a tragic burden on our healthcare system and a heartbreaking death for her family and friends. For me, the expansion of healthcare is a pro-life issue. But it is also good economics.
Hard to believe that in all this hardship there is some good news. But there is.
In 2011, government benefits lifted 40 million people out of these different kinds of poverty. While Social Security has the largest impact, means-tested programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and SSI raised almost 20 million Americans, including 8.5 million children, out of poverty.
Every day across the country, as important as reducing poverty, I see assistance programs also helping to stabilize families and provide pathways to opportunity. We are not losing the War on Poverty, but don't take it just from me:
• Studies have found that the EITC and Child Tax Credit increase employment rates of parents, reduce child poverty, and have a positive impact on children's school performance, which is a key factor in future economic success.
• Researchers were able to compare outcomes for poor babies in the 1960s and 1970s who were fortunate enough to live in counties served by the food stamp program to poor babies who lived in counties that did not yet have the program. Babies in counties served by food stamps were healthier as adults and were more likely to finish high school.
Too often, today's official poverty rate is compared to that in the late 1960s and 1970s, leading some to the erroneous conclusion that the War on Poverty is failing. This comparison relies on a flawed poverty measure and overlooks the strong antipoverty impacts of current programs. An apples-to-apples comparison that included these benefits would tell a more favorable story.
Food assistance, for example, has worked just as it was designed. As the economy continues to recover and more people find jobs, the Congressional Budget Office projects the number of people receiving SNAP will decline as will the cost of the program. The growth in SNAP is not a scandal or evidence that the program has run amok, but the consequence of a weak economy and a national commitment to take care of those struggling at the margins of our society. That is a commitment I believe the public shares and that the nation should be proud of.
This is why many of us were outraged when some House Republicans announced just before the August recess that they planned to double their proposed funding cuts to SNAP, dropping up to 4 million more poor people from the program. Often overlooked, households receiving this benefit are working families and a very large share, more than 8 in 10, worked in the year before or the year after receiving SNAP.
We won't address poverty problems by ignoring the successes of today's safety net or cutting needed funding, but neither is today's safety net adequate. In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's War on Poverty next year, we cannot ignore the data and the research — and the daily experiences of millions of Americans — that tell the same story: Programs like SNAP, EITC, the Child Tax Credit, Medicaid, CHIP, housing assistance and child care assistance do a tremendous amount of good. By adequately funding these programs we reduce poverty and help families make ends meet. We provide healthcare that saves lives; support working parents; reduce hunger and improve health; stabilize children's lives and improve school performance. In short, we make our nation better.
In a pluralistic society I know that not all share my faith mandate. But we do share the Constitution. In that context, We the People must continue to combine public and private efforts to lighten the yoke of poverty and provide a true path to prosperity. We the People must responsibly raise revenue to pay for vital programs. We the People need a renewed commitment to reduce poverty and promote opportunity. That is the faithful and patriotic way forward.
(Sister Simone Campbell SSS, is an attorney and the Executive Director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby in Washington DC. She is also the leader of "Nuns on the Bus" which campaigns for economic justice and immigration reform. Opinions are her own.)