The other day a consumer was listening to a conversation between two service providers when she suddenly leaned forward and asked me what the word “poverty” meant. Although she didn’t realize it, on that subject she was an expert. She knew all about ‘living poor’ on public assistance, about using her Medicaid card to get the medication she needed, and stretching out her food stamps so they lasted until the end of the month.
But “poverty”? What did that mean?
Eleven years ago, the 2000 Census recorded that 12.4% of the total U.S. population were below the poverty line. The 2010 Census indicated a 2.4% increase of Americans living in poverty, causing the U.S. poverty level totals to rise to 14.8%. More telling is that 25% of disabled persons are living in poverty in the United States.
Yet Congress recently voted to cut $61 billion in funding for programs that poor families broadly utilize, such as Head Start, community health centers and nutrition programs for women, infants and children. An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that of $4.32 trillion in proposed spending cuts not tied to the phase-down of war, $2.9 trillion are in cuts to low-income programs.
Of those low income programs, there has been a strong focus on ‘reforming’ entitlement programs that include essential health care services. Some activists and economists have wondered whether the proposed ‘reforms’ have profoundly flawed math and values. Will Medicare ‘go broke’ if members of Congress don’t agree with what seems to be a fiscal ‘three card monte’ game that shifts costs from one source, the government, and slides those costs onto seniors? Is Congress really concentrating on finding conscientious ways to contain expanding health care costs under Medicaid or are they just trying to find quick and expedient grounds to allow states to cut back on key services and eligibility in the form of a ‘block grant’?
Block granting entitlements is not new. In the mid-1990’s the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) was among the first such programs to be ‘block granted’. Even as poverty increases across the country, states have wide latitude to restrict cash benefits to needy families. They can also set inflexible work requirements that often fail to consider the recipient’s disabilities, literacy, child care or transportation needs. States can also prevent families from receiving benefits if they don’t meet those mandated work requirements and restrict TANF beneficiaries from counting job training or higher education as part of their work requirement. The result: some recipients to must accept low paying jobs with little hope or opportunity for advancement.
As concerned Americans it would irresponsible to ignore or dismiss our country’s uncertain fiscal health. As citizens we must get involved and insist that our voices be heard and that our legislators seek long term solutions towards a balanced budget that doesn’t harshly and unfairly cut fundamental services for millions of other Americans.
- Kate F.