Today, the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee is considering the question of how trickle-down economics failed in the War on Poverty. This hearing sharply contrasts with the House Republican budget proposal, which would cut programs for low- and moderate-income people by about $3.7 trillion over the next decade without asking for a single additional dollar in tax revenue.
These proposed cuts to the safety net will devastate the lives of millions of Americans like me. As a single mother of three, I have spent much of my life pulling myself up by my proverbial bootstraps. I have weathered spells of unemployment, food insecurity, homelessness, and domestic violence.
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But in spite of my struggles, I obtained a four-year college degree. Were it not for federal and California state programs, I would not have been able to balance the many challenges of higher education with my familial obligations. CalWorks, the income assistance program in my state, helped me to identify a cognitive disability that otherwise would have gone undiagnosed, and then helped me to secure the accommodations I needed to finish my education. Medicaid gave my children health insurance––which helped me sleep better at night. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC helped me afford groceries and feed my family. With the help of this vital assistance, I graduated with a degree in public policy in 2007. I am living proof that the safety net can work—but only when it’s adequately funded.
Since my graduation, I have continued to pursue my passion for social justice and political advocacy by working with a legal services agency. I connect low-income individuals with state and federal resources that help them keep their heads above water. The clients I work with are not “takers.” They are people who are trying to find affordable housing and nutrition assistance for their families so that they can escape abusive relationships, find a better-paying job, heal from an illness or injury, or overcome addiction. And perhaps they, too, will one day be able to connect others with these vital programs.
But in recent years, I have noticed that these programs have become harder to access. When I first started at this job, the majority of my caseloads were approved with almost no issues. Now, as block grants and “work first” reforms have hacked away at many of the programs that were so crucial to my success, more and more people are seeing their applications denied. For example, today just 23 of every 100 families with children living in poverty benefit from cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, compared to 68 in 1996. In my experience, a lot of the clients who come to our agency for help have trouble keeping up with the intrusive and needlessly complicated applications, reauthorizations, and verification forms required to receive benefits. Just one missed deadline, and you can be cut off with no warning. The wait to get back into the system can be over a month long.
These realities are deeply misunderstood by many legislators. Indeed, conservatives—who seek cuts to the very programs that have served as a lifeline for me and my three daughters—peddle an oversimplified and inaccurate notion of poverty. Instead of raising wages or increasing access to affordable housing, these legislators work to further stigmatize low-income people through instituting drug testing requirements, even though very few recipients test positive for drug use, or by banning the use of SNAP benefits to purchase lobster. These frivolous “solutions” in search of a problem underscore how, unlike me, they have never had to strategize about which food pantry to get bread from, or which public restroom to wash up in, or which shelter to spend the night in with three children.
Lawmakers have an obligation to pass a budget that invests in all Americans. They have an obligation to recognize the struggles that people in poverty endure every day—not shame them for those struggles. They have an obligation to strengthen the safety net, not unravel it. It’s not just people living in poverty who need these key federal investments. Every American who believes government can make a fundamental difference in people’s lives has an inherent interest in protecting public assistance programs.