What Candidates Should Say about Poverty and Opportunity at Ryan’s Forum

This Saturday, a number of Republican presidential candidates will converge in South Carolina to debate and discuss “fighting poverty and expanding opportunity in America.” We hope that they discuss the issue and its solutions based on what a balanced view of research tells us.

Here are eight things they should say at this forum.

1. Inequality is closely related to poverty and opportunity

Poverty and inequality are separate but related challenges. Poverty typically refers to a floor—set in some relation to prevailing living standards—for economic resources or material deprivation, below which nobody should fall. Inequality refers to the distribution of economic resources throughout the population, and raising floors—and lowering ceilings—would of course reduce it. To understand the connection between poverty and inequality, consider that the growing concentration of economic resources among the more affluent during the past half-century contributed four times more to poverty than changes in family structure and racial composition in the American population.

2. Both poverty and inequality create economic disadvantage and limit our economy

By creating economic disadvantage, both poverty and inequality limit the life chances of a large share of our population. Research has confirmed that childhood poverty hinders school achievement, harms health, increases interaction with the criminal justice system, and worsens labor market outcomes in adulthood. More recently, we’ve learned that stress from poverty affects brain development and a range of cognitive and non-cognitive skills, and that even growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood significantly lowers one’s chances for upward mobility. Such high costs of poverty and inequality have real, economic consequences for all of us. Costs associated with persistent childhood poverty alone amount to almost 4 percent of our GDP—hundreds of billions of dollars—every year.

3. Social and economic policy can create poverty and reduce opportunity, but not in the ways many conservatives claim

Persistent poverty and extreme inequality can be attributed in large part to the choices we make to shape our economy and opportunity structure. Had economic growth continued to produce shared prosperity as it had from 1959 to 1973, poverty would have come close to elimination decades ago. Poverty and inequality impact minorities and women disproportionately, fueled by structural disparities in criminal justice, pay, and education. For example, researchers estimate that had we not chosen our devastating path of mass incarceration, poverty rates would be 10 to 20 percent lower overall, with larger improvements for communities of color.

In contrast, conservatives push overblown claims about public programs creating work disincentives. The evidence suggests that the amount of earnings discouraged is negligible if any, and many programs like the EITC encourage work.

4. Good jobs are the best way to reduce poverty and expand opportunity

We can’t address poverty and opportunity without first acknowledging the detrimental effects of low minimum wages, deteriorating job quality, and limited worker protections. Current labor practices allow employers to simultaneously demand much and provide little in the way of support and flexibility. Unions and labor standards can help prevent workers from being shortchanged. Policymakers should take seriously calls to raise the national minimum wage, require fair scheduling for workers, fight employee-contractor misclassification and wage theft, and enact the Paycheck Fairness Act to address the gender wage gap.

Reaching full employment—both by investing in physical infrastructure (including transportation, water, and affordable housing) and by increasing employment opportunities through subsidized jobs—is one of the most effective strategies we can pursue. Jobs programs also help the children of workers and strengthen families.

5. Public benefits are enormously effective, but do far less than they could

Even people working full-time often cannot work or earn enough to meet basic needs—making the safety net essential. In 2013, work supports and antipoverty programs like Social Security, food assistance, and Medicaid lifted 40 million people out of poverty. Still, with a growing share of families living in $2.00-a-day poverty, and gaping holes in the safety net, more needs to be done to strengthen our antipoverty programs. When factoring in public benefits and tax credits, other wealthy countries do far more than the U.S. to reduce poverty and inequality.

Research has shown that we have at least partial—often cost-effective—strategies for addressing economic disadvantage. It is likely, however, that conservatives will ignore empirical evidence and turn instead to Ryan’s Opportunity Grant which—by consolidating safety net programs into block grants given to the states—poses substantial risk of actually expanding poverty rather than cutting it.

6. We must empower disadvantaged people in our political system

Significantly reducing poverty and inequality requires an explicit focus on empowering disadvantaged groups and eliminating discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and more. Democracy must also become more representative, as political science research confirms what many of us have feared: in policy disagreements between the most well-off and everyone else, the wealthy consistently win. We must strengthen and protect the Voting Rights Act, level the playing field for political contributions, and limit the influence of corporate lobbyists. We must also prevent further disenfranchisement of especially vulnerable groups by enacting comprehensive immigration reform, restoring and increasing access to legal aid, and reversing over-incarceration and over-criminalization. If people have a voice in our political and judicial systems, they will have a real chance in our economic system.

7. When work-family balance is supported, good things happen for families

Providing paid family and medical leave, home visitation, affordable child care, and comprehensive family-planning services—as well as increasing incomes for disadvantaged families through a child allowance—will promote equity and security by ensuring that all women and families are able to maintain steady work and much-needed income while having more control over their lives.

Opportunities for education and training should be accessible and affordable for all at every stage of life. Universal early learning and quality education help lay the groundwork for success in adulthood. Increasing funding for public schools serving poor children significantly reduces intergenerational poverty. All individuals deserve the chance to get ahead through higher education without debt, and when there must be debt, income-based repayment should be an option.

8. Race and gender are intertwined with poverty, inequality, and opportunity

In 2013, racial and ethnic minorities had a poverty rate that was 13 percentage points higher than that of non-Hispanic whites. Women are still 32 percent more likely to be poor than men; for women of color, the economic disparities are even worse. In 2013, white families had on average six times the wealth of Hispanic families and seven times that of African American families. Income and wealth gaps mean these families have significantly fewer resources to invest in themselves, their children, and their communities. For example, African American families have to wait an average of eight years longer than white families to purchase a home.

In case you don’t hear it at the upcoming forum in South Carolina, remember that addressing poverty and inequality can simultaneously expand economic security and opportunity while growing the economy. And with America’s economic rivals making impressive investments in children and families, American competitiveness depends in part on helping the most disadvantaged among us reach their full potential.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated from its original version.



What South Carolinians Think About Ryan’s Poverty Forum

This Saturday, conservative leaders will gather in South Carolina for the “Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity” co-hosted by Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Tim Scott. With an overall poverty rate of 18 percent in 2014, South Carolina ranks among the ten poorest states in the country and has one of the lowest rates of health insurance coverage. And for low-income South Carolinians, these statistics are merely a reminder of the harsh realities they face.

Billed as an opportunity for conservatives to outline their major plans on tackling poverty, the forum comes after months of heightened rhetoric  on poverty and inequality—including a poverty tour by then-Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. These events are part of a concerted effort by conservative lawmakers and the media to paint the War on Poverty as a failure, even though the safety net reduced the poverty rate by more than half and lifted 48 million people above the poverty line in 2012.

Unfortunately, this newfound concern for poverty is at odds with a conservative policy agenda that would exacerbate inequality, hardship, and wage stagnation.

Under his “Opportunity Grant” proposal, Ryan has proposed converting a number of programs to state block grants, a decision that nonpartisan analysis suggests would reduce families’ ability to access key programs such as nutrition and housing assistance. In crafting this idea, Ryan and other conservatives often point to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program as a model—even though it does very little to mitigate poverty and hardship and is unresponsive to recessions.

Furthermore, in their most recent congressional budgets, Republicans obtained two-thirds of their cuts from programs helping low and moderate income families, while channeling additional resources towards tax cuts for the wealthy.

South Carolinians like Dr. Ebony Hilton take issue with this approach. Dr. Hilton grew up in poverty in Spartanburg, a city located almost one hundred miles north of Columbia, as the middle child of a mother with only a high school education. Now she earns in the six figures and serves as the first black female anesthesiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina. Dr. Hilton credits federal programs like Pell Grants for much of her success. As she told TalkPoverty, “Pell Grants allowed me to pursue higher education because when I was going through college, there was no option to call home for money for books or tuition or fees. The overwhelming amount of debt can be tremendous and can stop people from taking that extra step to pursue their life passion.”

In addition to attempting to gut programs that invest in people like Dr. Hilton, conservatives have stood in the way of policies that would raise stagnant wages, increase access to health insurance, and allow families to better balance the responsibilities of working and caring for themselves and their children.

Conservatives have stood in the way of policies that would raise stagnant wages.

For example, although a majority of Republican voters support raising the minimum wage, Republicans in Congress continue to block a minimum wage hike that would actually save $53 billion in nutrition assistance over 10 years. In contrast, longtime state advocates like Sue Berkowitz, who serves as the Director of South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, view increasing wages as a core component of an anti-poverty strategy: “You can’t not examine why we haven’t increased the minimum wage in [nearly] 10 years. We can say all these wonderful things but without real plans, we’re saying we’re comfortable with people being in poverty.”

And for South Carolinians like Yolanda Gordon, conservative opposition to expanding Medicaid and providing access to paid sick days has proved economically destabilizing. Although Gordon has an associate’s degree in occupational therapy and works part-time at a non-profit helping families of kids with disabilities, she struggles to provide for her three children—each of whom has special medical needs. To add insult to injury, South Carolina has refused to expand Medicaid, leaving her without health coverage.

Due to the intransigence of the state’s conservative leaders, Gordon is one of more than three million adults nationwide—and 123,000 South Carolinians—who fall into what is known as the “coverage gap.” That is, her income is too high to qualify her for Medicaid, but too low for the subsidies she needs to afford health insurance. Without these subsidies, the average cost of the least expensive plan is around $333 per month in South Carolina.

As Gordon battles health issues like high cholesterol—which can lead to heart attacks and strokes—the state’s failure to expand Medicaid has left her in medical purgatory. In a scenario that is all too common, Gordon can’t afford medication and regular checkups without health insurance—in fact, she won’t be able to pay for an exam until next July. In the meantime, she has put herself on a diet to try to manage her condition. As she told TalkPoverty, “For those of us in states that didn’t take part in the Medicaid expansion, we just pray to God that we don’t get sick.”

If she or her children do fall ill, Gordon is not entitled to paid sick days, as employers are not required to provide them under state and federal laws. So if her oldest daughter, who has asthma, is sick at school, Gordon has to choose between earning a paycheck or taking care of her child.

The fact is that people like Yolanda Gordon need more than political posturing—they require higher wages, health care, paid sick and family leave, and increased investments in education, training, and other supports. This summit is an opportunity for conservatives to correct their legacy and set forth a policy agenda that matches their newfound rhetoric on poverty. Let’s hope they rise to the challenge.




The Ten Worst States for Food Insecurity

Years into the economic recovery, far too many families are struggling against hunger. In fact, as the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture data reveals, 14 percent—or 17.4 million households—experienced food insecurity at some time during 2014, meaning that they had insufficient money or other resources for food.

In some of the worst performing states, almost one in five households don’t consistently have the resources to put food on the table.












Despite performing so poorly, many states on this list have adopted conservative policies that have made life harder for low-income families:

  • States like Ohio are restricting access to food stamps for unemployed residentseven if they live in regions with few job opportunities. Governor Kasich’s administration has opted to reinstate a three-month time limit on nutrition assistance benefits for some unemployed adults ages 18 to 50 who are not disabled or raising minor children, even though some counties within the state are eligible for federal waivers of this requirement. Advocates have charged that this decision disproportionately impacts minorities, as the state accepted waivers for counties with predominantly white residents while refusing them for counties largely populated by people of color.
  • Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas maintain restrictive asset tests for nutrition assistance, which decreases low-income families’ self-sufficiency by requiring them to spend down their savings or sell off assets to access assistance. Assets are important for economic mobility generally. For example, when working-age families can put aside even sums of less than $2,000—they are less likely to face hardships such as running short on food, forgoing needed health care, or having the utilities turned off.




The Ten Worst States for Child Poverty

Years into the economic recovery, child poverty remains far too high. In fact, as the most recent Census Bureau data reveals, 21.3 percent of children live in related families with incomes below the poverty line. This is enormously costly, as poverty harms children’s long-term prospects and drains the U.S. economy of an estimated $672 billion each year.

In some of the worst performing states, almost one in three children live in poverty.


Despite performing so poorly, many states on this list have adopted conservative policies that have made life harder for low-income children:

  • In Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana, fewer than 10 families for 100 living in poverty can access cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Arizona presents a particularly brutal example of prioritizing cutting families off of aid over cutting poverty. Although the state still faces one of the nation’s highest child poverty rates, it has dramatically reduced eligibility. As a result, the number of families served by TANF fell 61 percent between December 2006 and December 2013.
  • Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina fully ban individuals with felony convictions from accessing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and TANFeven well after they have served their sentence. Such bans increase the risk of parents being unable to provide for their children’s basic needs or being charged with child neglect; these policies also encourage recidivism by denying individuals the services they need to successfully reenter society after incarceration.
  • Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Tennessee do not allow incarcerated noncustodial parents to pause child support ordersthis policy traps non-custodial parents in a vicious cycle of debt, nonpayment, and even re-incarceration, further undermining their ability to be involved with their children. It is this cycle that led to the tragic death of Walter Scott, a South Carolina father who was pulled over for a broken tail light and then shot in the back while trying to flee law enforcement for fear of being arrested for owing child support debt.



The Ten Worst States for Poverty

Years into the economic recovery, poverty and economic insecurity remain far too high. In fact, as the most recent Census Bureau data reveals, the share of Americans with incomes below the poverty line—at 15.5 percent—barely budged between 2013 and 2014.

In some of the worst performing states, more than one in five residents live in poverty.


Adding insult to injury, many of these poorly performing states have doubled down on conservative policies that have made life harder for low-income people:

  • Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee have allowed wages to stagnate by not setting their minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25. For example, in Georgia, employees that are not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act can be paid as little as $5.15 per hour. This failure to raise wages has meant that a single parent of two children who works full time does not earn enough to escape poverty.
  • Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, Tennessee, and West Virginia maintain restrictive asset tests, which decrease low-income families’ self-sufficiency by requiring them to spend down their savings or sell off assets to access assistance. Assets are important for economic mobility generally—for example, when working-age families can put aside even sums of less than $2,000—they are less likely to face hardships such as running short on food, forgoing needed health care, or having the utilities turned off. But, in states like Georgia with particularly stringent tests, families can only have $1,000 in assets to access cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, with few exceptions.
  • Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas (under the leadership of newly-elected Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson), Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi have instituted drug testing that stigmatizes public assistance applicants even though they test positive for drug use at a rate lower than the general population. In Tennessee, officials found that less than 0.2% of all applicants tested positive, mirroring results in other states like Mississippi and Arizona. The cost to states for this wasteful testing has exceeded $1 million dollars collectively—money that could have been spent on strengthening the program.