The Catholic University of America
Sep 21 2011

Poverty Rates Climb… And Congress is Silent. Why?

Posted by Matthew Green at 10:16 AM
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- Categories: Social Justice | Education | Government & Civil Society

The U.S. Census Bureau has released some disturbing new numbers measuring poverty in the United States.  More than 46 million Americans are currently living below the poverty line – a whopping 15% of the U.S. population.  Not since the early 1990’s has the percentage been this high.  And even worse, the data show sharp declines in real income, a record number of people without health care insurance, and particularly harsh economic conditions for women.

Yet despite widespread media coverage of these alarming figures, the reaction from Congress has been surprisingly muted.  Why?

To be sure, the current political environment is not conducive to Congress taking action.  The talk in Washington is about debt reduction, not federal spending.  Congress is sharply divided along partisan lines – Democrats control the Senate, Republicans the House – a recipe for policy gridlock.  Democrats, thinking to the next presidential election, worry that pushing the issue may only further connect Obama with the struggling economy.  And Congressional Republicans, an increasingly conservative party, do not want to lose the support of activist Tea Party groups, most of which are so opposed to government programs and regulations that they sometimes sound like the Anti-Federalists of the 1780’s.

But there are three bigger reasons that Congress is less likely to deal with poverty than it should.

For one thing, poor people don’t vote.  In the 2000 elections, according to the Census Bureau, 72% of those in families making $50,000 a year or more cast ballots.  Among people from families making $10,000 or less, by contrast, the voting rate was a measly 38%.  Combined with the fact that seniors – who have fared best in personal income and who voted G.O.P. at an unusually high rate in 2010 – also vote the most often of any age group, there is little electoral incentive for lawmakers to do much.

Second, research has suggested that citizens with less income may expect their elected representatives to act in ways that speak against broad-based approaches to national problems.   In her book Black Faces in the Mirror, a study of African-Americans in Congress, Katherine Tate analyzed data from a 1996 survey and found that, at least among black voters, those who were poorer were more likely to prefer that their representative provide constituency service, versus working on national legislation or getting federal money to their districts (pp. 128-29).  If this extends to other ethic and racial groups, it means members of Congress are unlikely to hear complaints from their impoverished constituents that they need to pass bills tackling poverty.

Finally, the last major effort of the federal government to reduce poverty rates created an enduring political backlash.  The great “War on Poverty” that Lyndon Johnson waged in the mid-1960’s corresponded with a remarkable and durable decline in the poverty rate (which had been over 20% in 1960), proving more successful than the other, more infamous war of Johnson’s presidency.  But as the historian Julian Zelizer noted in a recent editorial, War on Poverty programs were never very popular with city leaders or poverty advocates, and they became the basis for a resurgent conservative movement that remains a potent force.  Thirty years later, when Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law – a culmination of this movement – states, not the federal government, became the primary administrators of welfare programs for the poor.

In short, there are structural and historical factors, as well as short-term political ones, that keep Congress from doing anything about our nation’s worsening poverty problem.  It will take some significant shifts in our political culture and the voting behavior of citizens – not just a change in which party is in charge – for Congress to do anything meaningful to help the nation’s poor.

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