Welcome Back: Lost in translation: What we must do to combat poverty

By Ankur Sakaria / Columnist

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The apparent disparity of income inequality among low- and high-income families in the United States is at an all-time high. Income inequality, or poverty to be exact, is one of the most deprecating issues hindering society and, for decades now, little has been done to reverse the trend.

Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are all directed to helping those in need, particularly those troubled by a serious gap in income, resources and education from their wealthier, more adept counterparts. 

These programs, along with an assortment of smaller federal and state assistance programs, support a compelling case for some: a purported behemoth of tax dollars go to a replete of programs aiding the poor, leaving little reason for the federal government to do anything more than what they have already promised. After all, these tax dollar-sucking poor people live comfortably while the rest of society foots the bill, right?

Cue: slew of misconceptions and misguided stereotypes.

The problem doesn’t lie in the number of programs that Washington and state governments implement to help the needy, nor is it an issue that the impoverished are sucking our tax dollars that could be put to other programs — that’s just fallacious. It isn’t even an issue of how much is appropriated to these programs — not yet, at least. 

Two problems lie within public assistance programs: the inefficient sieve these programs become when they attempt to determine who is eligible for benefits; and the infrastructure of these policies, which all share similarities, albeit intended to assist different demographics facing differing situations. These programs are identical in that they fall short because for one, their eligibility requirements fail to account for swaths of individuals whom are in dire need of help, but are ineligible for certain types of benefits. What is troublesome about this is that while they neglect such constituencies, these programs continue to tout the same slogans: “helping” the impoverished make ends meet. That just isn’t true

So, given these programs’ inability to correctly account for the impoverished, and that their infrastructure collectively fails to alleviate the burdens of food insecurity and poverty, how can they be reformed appropriately? In short: emphasizing the need for education. It’s been argued before, but little has been reformed to tend to the necessary skills individuals need to alleviate the shackles of poverty in an effort to climb the social mobility ladder. 

Education is the single most important factor that determines whether those in poverty will ever leave poverty. Although a few tenets in assistance programs address the development of skills and expertise necessary to be competitive in a cutthroat workforce, they are inefficient: Instead of recognizing that skill development is necessary to ensure economic progress, assistance programs throw money at a constituency unproductively. 

First, the central premise of these programs must change. It shouldn’t be to just lift the hold poverty imposes on the lives of unfortunate individuals, but to educate them in an effort to ensure their children — and their children’s children — aren’t further suffocated by poverty.

As the war on poverty’s first crusader, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “The cause [of poverty] may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.”

Poverty is all around us

Poverty is formally defined as a dearth in the usual or socially acceptable amount of money and tangible assets. According to the United States Census Bureau, approximately 15 percent — or about 46 million Americans — fit the description of poverty. But the Census Bureau’s largely inaccurate method of arriving at that statistic has long been criticized. By using the newer, more efficient measure, called the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), the poverty rate in the United States reaches 16 percent — or about 50 million Americans — as noted by poverty expert and Columbia professor Stephen Pimpare. 

While to some that may seem unconcerning, poverty has reached more than 16 percent of Americans. The issue with the Census Bureau’s calculation lies within its name, in fact. The census surveys individuals at a singular point in time and it doesn’t account for the fluctuating financial state of millions. As Pimpare notes, by looking at data on how many Americans were in poverty for at least two months from 2009 to 2011, the percentage of Americans faced with poverty exponentiates to 31.6 percent. That statistic alone is astounding because not only does that mean far more Americans have experienced poverty, but the country with one of the highest rates of economic production, average household income and standard of living, also is home to one of the highest number of impoverished individuals for a developed country.

Zooming in, the poverty rate in Allegheny County reflects similarly troubling numbers. Currently, approximately 12.7 percent — or just over 151,000 individuals — face poverty in Allegheny County. In the 15213 zip code, which houses communities such as Pitt and Oakland, 157,643 people currently are enrolled in SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps.

The issue of poverty evidently isn’t one that is abstract or distant, or only a concern for third-world countries, but rather it is a rampant, pressing concern that affects everyone, including our neighbors — and perhaps even ourselves.

Not giving enough 

Assistance programs such as TANF, SNAP and WIC aren’t entirely ineffective policies. Contrary to the innumerable misconceptions that plague these programs, the benefits those in poverty receive are finite. For unemployed beneficiaries, strict restrictions are in place that incentivize individuals to obtain employment. Furthermore, most of these programs are not welfare. In fact, they are lines of defense to prevent individuals from enrolling in welfare.

For a program such as SNAP, for every dollar the federal government pays for the program, up to $1.80 is returned back to the economy. These programs also assist in America’s future: The largest beneficiary of many of these programs is children. So yes, these programs are laudable — to an extent.

TANF, for instance, is an assistance program that helps families struggling to stay afloat and live healthily by offering benefits such as expendable cash and healthcare services. Although TANF is a program upon which many people heavily depend, the largest discrepancy with TANF is that the program’s funding hasn’t adjusted for inflation in 16 years, diminishing the overall value of the funds by 30 percent. What is more, TANF fails to address the shocking barriers to employment to which those in poverty are subjugated. In fact, recipients make a compelling case for why education should be the top priority amongst these assistance programs — many TANF recipients are reported to face more than one barrier to employment. In 2009 alone:

31 percent of recipients had no high school diploma or GED equivalent.

47.1 percent had no driver’s license or car.

25 percent had a major depressive disorder.

22.1 percent had a child with a health, learning or emotional problem.

These statistics show why educating the impoverished is crucial in seeing any real progress with regard to eradicating poverty. TANF includes some job training for its beneficiaries, but that is far from enough to make any real difference in the lives of millions of Americans who have been systematically marginalized. If funds are allocated to programs that incentivize individuals to obtain more skills for employment than what a minimum wage job demands, the probability of economic prosperity could increase.

One step forward, two steps back

It’s hard to imagine that poverty is more apparent in our peripheral than we would like to imagine, but that gives us no better reason to fix what we see as broken on a daily basis. Although unproductive policies prolong the issues many of these families and individuals face, we can take some solace in knowing that more people are realizing how to potentially lower the number of impoverished individuals in the United States. That is absolutely a positive sign for the fight against poverty.

Unfortunately, it seems that Washington is no more likely to pass any sort of reform to programs such as TANF, WIC or SNAP than they are likely to pass something such as immigration reform. But there has been visible progress on the local and state levels. History, however, disagrees: Similar conclusions were made with marriage equality and now the United States is on the brink of having half of its states recognize same-sex marriage as a legitimate form of matrimony.

Moreover, recent movement in Washington is encouraging. Congressman Paul Ryan’s discussion draft outlining new approaches to maximizing the efficiency of public assistance programs has begun a discourse for action. Though the plan does call for increased spending on crucial programs such as Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) — which is a refundable tax credit for low-income employed individuals — it leaves large responsibilities to states to enforce individualized programs for their constituents.

One example of this is the implementation of block grants. As a plus, creating block grants could provide states with added flexibility in appropriating funds, which is especially helpful during times of recession, when the number of individuals in need of assistance typically increases. What’s more, block grants can also simplify the bureaucratic nightmare of applying for public benefits, as echoed by many of those in the process. Yet, the implementation of these grants and the increased responsibility state governments will subsequently exercise, is ultimately a very neglectful stance on poverty. Shifting all of this responsibility from the federal government to each state, relying on them to help their impoverished constituents is skeptical at the very least. Why? When many of these states refuse to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, denying millions of Americans health coverage, how confident would the average low-income family be that their state will help them climb out of poverty? 

Separate from this, block grants have a dangerous reputation when it comes to doling out funds to needy individuals. In the past, block grants have not adjusted for inflation or efficiently met the needs of the given population.

Looking forward, what is to be made of the anti-poverty legislative reform is uncertain. On one end, advocacy groups and community-based enterprises will continue to work tirelessly to enact changes to effectively limit the number of impoverished individuals in their community. While these advocates move forward and make progress, national political polarization looms, engendering a defatigable fight against poverty. Considering the overall neglect of the underprivileged and the spewing of misconstrued notions and stigmas circulating poverty, the probability to enact any version of legislative reform in the immediate future is dismal. Sadly, the only thing guaranteed is political lethargy.

As CEO of Gallup Jim Clifton puts it, “We cannot win the war for good jobs without the inclusion of and capacity building of the poor.”

Write to Ankur at ans189@pitt.edu

Editor’s note: This column is an updated version of the original one that ran in print. 

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