Who says we’re losing the war on poverty?

Who says we’re losing the war on poverty?

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Myth-busting data demonstrate that the safety net makes a huge difference in NC

It’s an article of faith on the modern American Right that America’s “war on poverty” is a lost and hopeless cause. For decades now, conservative politicians and commentators have been churning out essays and speeches in which they claim that public safety net programs are useless. Some even go so far as to accuse safety net spending proponents of fraud by claiming that the real purpose of such programs is to make politicians look as if they’re as if they’re helping the poor even when they really don’t.

Sadly, this mantra has been repeated for so long in so many places that it has begun, perniciously, to creep into the mainstream. Today in the United States, many millions of people whose wellbeing and quality of life are dramatically enhanced by safety net spending repeat this slander. Think, most poignantly, of the tea partying, anti-Obamacare activists from a few years ago who famously demanded that the government “keep its hands off of their Medicare.”

Happily, the truth “on the ground” has little to do with conservative mythology. The simple fact of the matter is that public safety net programs make a huge difference in combating poverty in America and have done so for decades. Indeed, a close look reveals that not only is the war on poverty not a lost cause; it is a fight we can win with the right kind of renewed commitment.

Recently, analysts at the Washington, DC-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities compiled the latest state-by-state data on the impact of safety net spending and corralled them in one convenient website. The following is from the North Carolina section of that website:

“In North Carolina, Safety Net Lifts Roughly 1.7 Million People Above Poverty Line and Provides Health Coverage to 52 Percent of Children

Federal and state safety net programs lift an estimated 1.7 million North Carolinians above the poverty line each year, reducing the poverty rate from 30.4 percent (before counting government benefits and taxes) to 12.6 percent. Many are children: the safety net lifts roughly 430,000 North Carolina children above the poverty line, reducing the child poverty rate from 30.8 percent to 12.5 percent.

All figures in this fact sheet reflect the most recent data of their kind available. The figures measure the combined impact of federal, state, and local policies, but federal programs account for the vast majority of poverty reduction in every state.

Social Security lifts more North Carolinians above the poverty line each year than any other program. “Means-tested programs,” which tie eligibility to a person’s income —such as SNAP (formerly food stamps) and the Earned Income Tax Credit — also reduce poverty considerably, especially among the non-elderly.
In North Carolina:

  • Social Security lifts an estimated 940,000 people—most of them elderly—above the poverty line and cuts the elderly poverty rate from 60.6 percent to 15.5 percent.
  • SNAP lifts an estimated 340,000 people above the poverty line, and it makes many others less poor. Altogether, SNAP assists an average of 1.6 million people a month, including about 700,000 children.
  • Two working family tax credits, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, lift an estimated 370,000 people out of poverty. Altogether, roughly 2.9 million people—including 1.7 million children—receive the Earned Income Tax Credit or low-income part of the Child Tax Credit.
  • Supplemental Security Income, which provides critical aid to elderly and severely disabled people with very low incomes, lifts an estimated 150,000 people above the poverty line.
  • Housing assistance lifts an estimated 82,000 people above the poverty line. In total, federal rental assistance helps 290,000 people keep a roof over their heads; many other families eligible for assistance don’t receive it due to funding limitations.”

None of this is to is to say or imply that the current safety net system isn’t flawed and in need of significant upgrades. It is to say, however, that, as the report notes, “safety net programs not only reduce immediate deprivation but also have long-term benefits for children.”

The bottom line: American public structures and systems actually do a fairly remarkable job of combating poverty. The failure is in our lack of political will to make the kind of investments that would allow them to work as they were designed.

Click here to see the data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Click here to check out the North Carolina website.