COMMENTARY: Poverty programs worked, so let’s get rid of them?


For many decades now the GOP has sought to undo the New Deal and the Great Society. But a report released last month from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors, lost in a sea of grabbier news items, applies a new logic to the goal of shredding the safety net.

According to “expanding work requirements in non-cash welfare programs,” comprehensive antipoverty programs are no longer necessary because 50 years of antipoverty programs — yes, those same interventions long hated, and their effectiveness belittled, by the GOP — have succeeded so spectacularly that poverty is largely a thing of the past.

The report claims that the War on Poverty led to “the success of the United States in reducing material hardship,” but “that it also came at the cost of discouraging self-sufficiency.” It proceeds to lay out a case for limiting access to benefits and setting in place work requirements in exchange for basic nutritional and medical benefits.

This is beyond disingenuous. Yes, in the years after 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, the percentage of poor Americans did significantly decline; by some measures it was cut in half from about 22 percent of the population down to about 11 percent. But over the last 40 years it has rebounded with a vengeance.

Hunger is up again. Homelessness is up again — though the report claims erroneously that “(f)ortunately, homelessness is rare in the United States.” The number of casual and hourly laborers one accident or sickness away from a financial disaster is up, the number of elderly Americans financially unable to retire is increasing, and the proportion of the workforce with secure salaries and guaranteed pensions is down.

Income inequality in today’s America is as extreme as it has been at any point since the Gilded Age. In an era of flamboyant affluence and billionaires, the Princeton sociologist Kathryn Edin has found that at least 1.5 million Americans live on incomes of under $2 a day.

In the downtowns of cities such as Los Angeles, tens of thousands of homeless live on the streets.

Meanwhile, high-end homes in those same cities sell for tens of millions of dollars. All of this and more was pointed out in the recent United Nations report on the dangerous levels of extreme poverty and inequality in the United States.

Somewhere between 1 in 6 and 1 in 7 Americans live below the government’s own, extremely cautious definition of the poverty line: less than $13,000 for a single person, just over $25,000 for a family of four. That’s vastly higher than in most other developed economies. Somewhere around 1 in 5 American kids live in poverty, and in many counties that number surpasses 1 in 4.

While reporting on American poverty, I encountered people in New Mexico who lived without running water in their homes. I met grandparents in Idaho standing for hours on food bank lines so they could feed their grandchildren. I met Wal-Mart workers earning so little they qualified for food stamps. I met a man in Pennsylvania bankrupted by bills from his quadruple bypass heart surgery. I met schoolchildren in Nevada who were homeless. I met day laborers working for far below the legal minimum wage.

In Fresno and in Orange counties, I’ve seen dozens crammed into two-bedroom houses. I have talked to old men and women who have lost homes and cars to predatory payday lenders. A couple of months ago, I interviewed the director of a medical clinic in Oakland, most of whose clients were impoverished immigrants. She talked of a poor patient so terrified of medical bills that he refused to go to the hospital even after she told him that he was having a stroke right in front of her.

Only a government stocked with billionaires and reveling in its lack of empathy could conceivably claim that real poverty no longer exists in the United States.

Trump’s ghastly regime is seeking to shred the food stamp system, Medicaid and other vital benefits. It is proposing to triple the rent for large numbers of poor families who live in public housing. It is about to unveil a new definition of “public charge” that would allow the administration to deny permanent residency to any legal immigrant who uses, or whose children use, food stamps, public health systems, low-income heating assistance or other vital programs.

And it is aggressively pushing to impose onerous work requirements for benefits, not because the country is genuinely strapped for cash, but because, abetted by a far-right Congress, they have handed out hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts to the wealthiest among us and are now looking for a way to pay the bill.

All of this is guaranteed to exacerbate the country’s already stark income divides, and to make the quality of life for America’s least fortunate even worse.

I wonder how President Trump, Ben Carson, Steven Mnuchin, Jared Kushner and the other architects of America’s war on the poor would cope were they to try to live on $2 a day.

Something tells me that these pampered princelings would then quickly find that poverty is indeed something all too real, all too pervasive, all too soul-destroying.

Sasha Abramsky’s most recent book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.”