The New Democratic House Needs an Anti-Poverty Agenda
By Greg Kaufmann
On the heels of the recent election, which saw voters in deep red Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah pass ballot initiatives to expand Medicaid, and Arkansans and Missourians vote to raise the minimum wage, it is clear that commonsense policies that decrease poverty and expand opportunity enjoy bipartisan support in the nation, if not in Congress.
In that context, the new Democratic House has an opportunity to show voters what a broad anti-poverty, pro-opportunity agenda looks like. There are low-hanging, no-brainer votes that should be taken on policies that are about basic economic fairness: raising the minimum wage, providing paid sick days and paid family and medical leave, and expanding affordable, quality childcare.
But beyond these basics there is much Congress can do to not only reduce poverty but also transform America’s understanding of political, financial, and social inclusion. While a lot of attention is being paid to big ideas like single-payer health care, universal basic income, a federal job guarantee, debt-free college, baby bonds, expanding affordable housing—and those efforts will continue—there are also policies receiving less attention that, taken together, would add up to dramatic progress in expanding economic justice. Here are nine such ideas or policies.
NATIONAL SUBSIDIZED-EMPLOYMENT PROGRAM
No matter how the economy is doing, there are not enough jobs for everyone who wants to work—particularly for disadvantaged workers facing barriers to employment such as gender and racial discrimination, disability, need for childcare or transportation, a criminal record, and more. As of October 2018, 12.2 million people were unemployed, including 6.1 million officially unemployed, and 6.1 million not included in the official unemployment rate (either marginally attached to the labor marker or part-time workers who want to work full-time).
A subsidized-employment program is designed to help disadvantaged workers and others who can’t find full-time employment. Public, for-profit, and not-for-profit employers would all be eligible to receive subsidies in order to hire these workers at prevailing wages and provide them with training and job experience. The program would also offer wraparound services like childcare, mental-health and substance-use counseling, legal services, and transportation. A federal matching grant program would be available for states, but if states choose not to participate, local entities would still be able to apply through a competitive grants program. One similar piece of legislation is Representative Ro Khanna’s Job Opportunities for All Act, which would create an extensive subsidized-jobs program and target the continuing racial unemployment gap and areas of the country hit hardest by the opioid crisis.
There are more than 40 years of precedent for subsidized jobs programs. During the height of the Great Recession, the TANF Emergency Fundplaced more than 260,000 in jobs. “Subsidized jobs help people with some of the toughest times in the labor market,” said Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality (GCPI). “It’s also an area where we have no strategy or program, so there is a real need to set one up as soon as possible—especially before the next major economic downturn when these jobs will be desperately needed by families and communities throughout the country.”
INCREASE ACCESS TO COLLECTIVE BARGAINING
Unionization is a key antipoverty strategy as it raises the wages of the typical low-wage worker by more than 20 percent (compared to 13.7 percent for the typical worker, and 6.1 percent for the typical high-wage worker). The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) notes that 60 percent of adults have a favorable view of unions—but only 10.7 percent of wage and salary workers were union members as of 2017, down from 33 percent in 1956. That’s not a surprise given the relentless attack on collective bargaining since the Reagan years. According to EPI, legislation like the Workers’ Freedom to Negotiate Act would “streamline union elections, crack down on employers who illegally deter employees from unionizing, strengthen workers’ right to strike, prevent taxpayer dollars from supporting firms that violate workers’ rights, and importantly ban class action waivers as a condition of employment.”
AUTOMATICALLY CLEAR CRIMINAL RECORDS FOR NON-VIOLENT OFFENSES
Between 70 million and 100 million Americans have criminal records. Having a record—even a misdemeanor or an arrest that never led to conviction—can make it difficult throughout one’s life to get housing, a job, education, public benefits, and more. An estimated 9 in 10 employers use background check systems, for example, and applicants with a record are half as likely to get a call back as someone without a record. Moreover, nearly half of all children in America have at least one parent with a criminal record, and the resulting hardship impacts their short- and long-term outcomes as well.
While tens of millions of Americans are legally eligible to have their records cleared, the current petition-based process is onerous, costly, and often requires an attorney. Many people don’t even know they are eligible. A “Clean Slate” policywould use technology to automatically clear certain records after someone completed their sentence and remained crime-free for a set period of a time. It was recently signed into law in Pennsylvania and is gaining traction in other states as well. Bipartisan legislation in the House would automatically clear records for marijuana possession and many other non-violent offenses, and would also create a user-friendly system for people who were convicted on other charges to petition the courts to have their records cleared, excluding violent crimes and sex offenses.
INCREASE ECONOMIC SECURITY AND INCLUSION OF PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES
More than 1 in 4 people with a disability live in poverty—more than two and a half times the poverty rate for people without a disability. Many public policies exacerbate this hardship. Supplemental Security Income provides needed income support to people with severe disabilities but the program has limits on assets for participants that are nearly the same as in 1972, at $2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple. Current minimum wage law permits employers to pay people with disabilities a subminimum wage below $7.25 an hour. And for many people with disabilities healthcare continues to be the largest expense.
We need an expansion of the Medicaid Buy-In program to allow people with disabilities to purchase the healthcare they need without being hampered by the program’s typical limits. “A legislative package addressing the subminimum wage and the connection between assets and healthcare would be pretty momentous in moving us towards the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act around economic self-sufficiency and independent living,” said Rebecca Cokley, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
PASS LEGISLATION TO ALLOW IMMIGRANTS TO COME OUT OF THE SHADOWS
Poverty and immigration policy are “intimately connected, particularly for families—since about one-quarter of all children and one-third of low-income children are children of immigrants,” said Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy. The Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrant communities, including its “public charge proposal” which would deny green cards to families turning to public assistance, may be deepening hardship for families by discouraging them from seeking assistance, and making it harder for immigrants to find work. (Submit a comment opposing the public charge proposal through December 10 here.)
The Trump administration is also trying to end DACA—which gives “Dreamers” who were brought to the United States as children a temporary reprieve from deportation—and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Haiti, among others, who have been living and working legally in the country for decades. The House must lead in passing a new Dream Act that also provides permanent protections and a pathway to citizenship for people with TPS. According to Philip Wolgin, managing director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, such a bill would offer more than 3.5 million immigrants a path to citizenship.
PROTECT AND CLEAN-UP LOW-INCOME COMMUNITIES IMPACTED BY CLIMATE CHANGE AND POLLUTION
Between 1980 and 2017, 238 weather and climate disasters in the United States each caused at least $1 billion in damages each. In the past five years, the number of such events nearly doubled, to more than 11 per year. While everyone is affected by this surge in climate disasters, low-income communities are least able to prepare or recover from these events.
As the House pushes for a sane energy policy, it can also take action to make disadvantaged communities more resilient. One way to do that is via State Future Funds, federally supported low-interest or no-interest loans and loan guarantees that, according to the Center for American Progress (CAP), would be combined with state, local, and private-sector dollars to “encourage innovative transportation systems, energy infrastructure, and flood protections in areas that need them the most, including low-income areas and communities of color.”
The House also should take action to protect 53 million people who live within three miles of the nation’s 1,836 Superfund sites. They are disproportionately low-income people of color whose communities have been targeted to receive the nation’s waste for generations because of racism. CAP notes that through 1995 the federal government was permitted to fine polluters to fund Superfund-site cleanup “when responsible parties were unwilling or unable to pay.” Since that authority ended, the Superfund budget has been cut nearly in half, resulting in cleanup delays. The House should move to reinstate “polluter pays” authority and also increase funds for the EPA’s Superfund Emergency Response and Removal program, “which helps to protect communities from oil spills and sudden releases of toxic substances before, during, and after natural disasters.”
CREATE A MONTHLY CHILD ALLOWANCE
With the gutting of cash assistance in the United States, and nearly one in five children in America living in poverty—including 3 million on less than $2 per day—it is imperative that we immediately find new ways to assist children, especially in their early years during their most rapid brain development, when poverty takes a profound toll. Representative Rosa DeLauro’s Young Child Tax Credit would provide families with children under age 3 with an additional $1,500 refundable tax credit per child, and even those with no income would receive the assistance. The moneys would be made available on a monthly basis, rather than forcing families to wait until tax season. This legislation is especially critical for cash-poor familiesstruggling to afford things like diapers, hygiene products, and other basic necessities, and it provides income that is needed to help these families stabilize. Moreover, additional income assistance for families with young children has been shown to go a long way in boosting children’s long-term education and earnings outcomes.
ADDRESS RACIST GERRYMANDERING AND RACIST VOTER SUPPRESSION THAT HARM ALL POOR PEOPLE
Racist gerrymandering and voter suppression are used not only to deny the vote to people of color and people in poverty, but to support political candidates whose policies—like weakening the safety net, denying health care, and refusing to raise the minimum wage—harm people struggling with low or moderate incomes. The Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, calls the failure of Congress to address the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) more than five years ago “one of the most racist, underreported acts that we have seen.”
Fortunately, House Democrats look poised to take action. According to National Public Radio, its first bill will include provisions to establish automatic voter registration and require that independent commissions rather than state legislatures handle redistricting. Representative Terri Sewell’s (D-AL) Voting Rights Advancement Act would also ensure that the VRA complies with the Supreme Court ruling while creating a new system that would require states with a recent history of voter discrimination to receive federal clearance for any changes in voting laws.
CHANGE THE NARRATIVE
As long as conservatives continue to push a false narrative that portrays people in poverty as lazy or gaming the system—and that narrative goes unchallenged—we will be unsuccessful in attempts to change the systems that create and perpetuate economic hardship. An intentional Change the Narrative Campaign dedicated to showing who is poor, why people are poor, and what we can do about it—while shaming those who continue to use their positions of power to demonize and bully people in poverty—would be an important step in changing the status quo. It should include regular floor speeches, e-mail blasts, town-hall events, an online Hall of Shame, and an earned-media campaign.
Additionally, any member of Congress who cares about poverty should interact regularly with the Poor People’s Campaign and other organizations that embrace the expertise low-income communities possess about their own lives. We have already succeeded in cutting poverty by half. If we are to achieve a new aggressive anti-poverty, pro-opportunity agenda to finish the job, it will be through a movement that connects citizens and elected representatives who are fearlessly committed to change.