In the last US presidential election there was little mention of an agenda to improve the lives of the roughly 15% of Americans who live in poverty and the role, if any, the government should have in helping them. Both Democratic and Republican campaigns often made reference to “getting people back to work,” but concrete political promises to the unemployed seemed hard to come by.
While many have speculated about reasons for this oversight, something strange began happening about a year ago that indicates poverty will not be so overlooked in 2016. As the nation heads into the pre-season for the presidential nominating process, many vocal Republican politicians have begun making poverty a key concern and stump piece, and it isn’t the same message the populace has come to expect from the GOP. In fact, they are arguing that they can and should help the poor.
I work at an anti-poverty organization in the poorest US congressional district in the central Bronx, so I welcome any initiative aimed at alleviating the stresses on the poor, but it would be unwise to take these proposals at face value without examining their contents, the impact they would have on the lives of our society’s most vulnerable, and perhaps most crucially, the track records of those politicians drafting them. I connect people with government benefits for which they are eligible. I work alongside my clients, listening to their stories, defining a plan with them to improve their situations, and navigating the often complex and unfeeling landscape of welfare. I see how damaging the proposed conservative overhaul to public assistance could be.
One of the tenants of Paul Ryan’s plan—who stands out from the newly poverty-invested GOP for even having a cohesive policy—is lumping food stamps, known as SNAP, into a block grant to states, much like the way welfare is now structured. Under his plan, each state could increase or cut SNAP as it saw fit within its allotted amount from the federal government. While this sounds like a utopia to the “everything-on-the-state-level” activists who swept into Congress in 2010, I suspect few have seen first hand how mismanaged SNAP already is in many places.
A case which illustrated this mismanagement to me early on was that of a man I will call Michael. Michael was single, in his 40s and out of work, but had a long history of employment with the subway tunnelers, informally called the Sandhogs, and had helped build the new World Trade Center tower. He came into our office looking to sign up for any kind of help while he waited to get work again.
Michael applied for SNAP and was soon sent a notice to attend a “required work appointment.” (As a way to satisfy the efforts in the 1990s to “incentivize” welfare recipients, many cities and states instituted mandatory work search appointments for any single person who signed up for assistance.) The reality of these appointments, however, which I have confirmed from dozens of other clients, is far from the image that lawmakers envisioned. Michael went to his first work requirement at a non-profit with large city grants called Federation Employment and Guidance Service (FEGS) and was sat down. A manager told him “We don’t care if you get a job, we get paid either way. You just have to show up and stay here for six hours.”
So he did. There was no training, no coaching, no job searching. Two to three times a week he was sent to the FEGS meetings, to ensure he could continue getting his SNAP benefits. But in doing so, Michael was missing actual recruitment by employers. The Sandhogs union held “shaping up” everyday at 5 am at a new tunnel site and picked men off a list to work. Every time Michael attended FEGS, he missed the union roll calls, was bumped down the list, and further from actual gainful work. He was torn between a potential job and feeding himself.
As he weighed this impossible choice, Michael was dealt another blow when Congress allowed the Federal Unemployment Extension to lapse. He had been using unemployment checks to pay his rent in pieces and keep the landlord at bay but now had no options. Michael’s landlord made clear that his debts would be settled with violence not in a courtroom, so the free legal counsel our organization offered was no use. To cut his losses and protect himself, Michael packed up and moved to his daughter’s house out of state, losing his respected position in the local union and hopes at returning to work he loved. I haven’t seen him in almost two years. Caught in oppression, formal and informal, legal and illegal, Michael reflects a narrative I have seen many times and is underrepresented in national conversations about poverty.
I tell this story often to people who don’t understand, as I am only beginning to, the bleak choices of the poor, and I remind them that for all his hardships, Michael is a white native English speaker with technical skills and a professional support network. How well do we expect the millions of people without those privileges to fare against the odds he faced?
In 2014, Steven Banks was appointed director of the Human Resources Association, New York City's welfare agency. A lawyer with a history of critiquing unfair welfare policies, one of Banks’s first measures was to abolish work requirements for single people on SNAP and thus end a barrier to assistance. About a month ago, FEGS filed for bankruptcy after it came to light that $19 million was missing from their coffers.
People like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan say that welfare should be handed over entirely to states so as create a more “compassionate” social safety net. This is a noble goal and I understand their motivations. They see billions of federal dollars thrown into bureaucracies that waste it, while the poor aren’t “raised up” permanently from their positions, but rather floated along much as Michael was. To his credit, Paul Ryan made an impressive George Romney-style tour of impoverished areas in many states to see what could be done. He appears to be a man who wants data-driven solutions to problems that he believes are morally important.
But I can’t help wonder: if Ryan really spoke to the poor of America and the whole thing was more than highly-choreographed whistlestops, wouldn’t he have seen or heard everywhere how mismanagement and over-regulation can limit access to these life-saving benefits? From the work requirement meetings in NYC which Michael often called “a joke” to other outrageous policies current and proposed (with drug testing for all welfare recipients and family-sized caps in states like California), many are clearly drawn from classist stereotypes of aid recipients and do little in practice to improve lives or save government money, whichever is your higher priority.
In Ryan’s plan, recipients of welfare would have “life coaches” to help make the most of the aid and plan ahead. But what happens when the poor work hard at a career and run up against the lack of jobs for workers without a college education, or face unequal pay and a dearth of free childcare? Can a life coach restructure the hiring economy to make it more equitable the way the federal government can?
At their best, these plans could place extra barriers in the way of poor. At their most dangerous, giving states the final word on SNAP could put one of the largest poverty alleviation tools on the chopping block for state legislatures that deem it reducible or dispensable. Enforcing universal suffrage, defending the nation and many other responsibilities have long been deemed too vital to be decided on a local level, so why move hunger and poverty alleviation back down the ladder where they could be at risk? Medicaid conflicts have shown us how dangerous it can be to shift too much executive power to states.
Transferring hunger alleviation from church pantries and volunteer soup kitchens to the federal government was an extraordinary act of organization started by FDR and completed by Johnson. By returning this life-saving benefit program to the whim of states, we could be closer to an America where each state features a vastly disparate standard of living.
Examining his record does not give much hope either that the livelihoods of the poor are utmost in Ryan’s mind. Most obviously, he voted against the mandatory expansion of Medicaid, leaving many states with thousands less insured than before the Affordable Care Act passed. He nominally wants to expand affordable housing, but doesn’t mention that his 2014 budget barely repaired the damage to Section 8 vouchers inflicted by the 2013 Republican-led sequestration, which saw votes against regulation on sub-prime lending. The list goes on, but the pattern is clear going back over a decade.
What explains some Republicans’ movement on poverty of late? A somewhat cynical look the proposals by Ryan and other conservative hopefuls would make any observer conclude they are touching on poverty only now—having just passed the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty"—as a way to gather support, contributions, and ultimately votes in 2016. And it’s really quite a good ploy; to the coveted swing voters who may only make up their minds based on talking points, Republicans can appear invested in this issue, while anyone acquainted with this Congress’ actual stance toward the poor is probably already entrenched in their affiliation.
Moreover, as progressive activists and politicians have moved their battles increasingly to the economic front, Republicans with their eyes on 2016 must put on a convincing face and appear to be flowing with the times. When the Elizabeth Warrens and Occupys of the world speak up, savvy players of all stripes take note and pitch their ideas in the pile. Pictures of Paul Ryan on his poverty tour through blighted neighborhoods more than slightly resemble Nixon’s infamous walks down to the anti-war throngs in Washington, D.C. to try to make small talk with the protesters. Ryan is not nearly as tone-deaf or callous, but the same desire to be seen as searching for common ground, while working at contravening ends behind the scenes, is there.
The War on Poverty anniversary provided a hallowed stage on which the GOP could announce it too had thoughts on poverty, some of which were not carbon copies of Reagan-era rhetoric. But as we evaluate these proposals, we should keep in mind the records of those proposing them. These leaders have consistently characterized raising the federal minimum wage as over-interference with the private sector. They seek to sweep away the benefit programs that fill in the gaps. This history shows their current plan to be little more than another thrust at their minimalist government vision.
When these leaders make their poverty solutions an issue of import in 2016, will they have developed into something of substance? Or will they be the same potentially damaging proposals we see before us now, with little to honor the dignity and struggles of the poor and serving as mere items on a platform list, checked off with a somber, contrived nod?
Will Yates is a service fellow at LIFT-New York in the Bronx. He studied at Fordham University with a major in International Political Economics and a minor in Arabic Language.
Image: Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Thankful Poor (1894)