How to stick it to the poor: A congressional strategy

The Week
Well, it's certainly been an eventful year.
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Well, it's certainly been an eventful year.

The 113th Congress has stuck it to the poor at pretty much every opportunity. In fact, if you take all their past and future plans into account, it looks like they have accomplished that rare feat: To close in on enacting an overarching, radical agenda without control of the Senate or the presidency. How did they do it? Probably by escaping scrutiny through a piecemeal approach to legislation, a president who is willing to meet them halfway, and one diabolic word: Sequester.

Let's drill down into each piece:

1. Kick 'em to the curb
Congress will basically start kicking poor people out of their homes early next year. The idea is, if you can't pay for your home without government assistance, you don't deserve to live in one. In this spirit, budget cuts due to sequestration will take rental assistance vouchers away from 140,000 low-income families by the beginning of next year, making housing more expensive as agencies raise costs to offset the budget cuts. All in all, about three million disabled seniors and families will be affected. The savings? $2 billion, which is pretty much what the government shutdown cost in back-pay to federal workers.

If you're lucky enough to keep your home, don't expect to heat it. Sequester cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) meant that 300,000 low-income families in 2013 were denied government support for energy costs.

2. Take the food out of their mouths. Literally.
The recent reduction in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits has affected more than 47 million Americans and is the largest wholesale cut in the program since Congress passed the first Food Stamps Act in 1964.

The cuts to Food Stamps were implemented on November 1. Yet, Congress won't let the program rest there — House Republicans are pushing to take $39 billion from SNAP over the next decade. If their plan succeeds, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 3.8 million low-income individuals would lose their benefits in 2014 with 2.8 million more getting kicked off the program each year. SNAP is one of the three most effective anti-poverty programs the government has, keeping four million people out of poverty last year alone. So the initial and further cuts make a lot of sense — if you despise the poor.

And don't worry, other cuts to food programs ensure both the oldest and youngest amongst us won't be spared. Cuts to Meals on Wheels will cost poor seniors four to 18 million meals next year. Meanwhile, the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), which provides health care referrals and nutrition to poor pregnant and postpartum women and children up to age five, has grappled with $500 million in cuts this year and faces even deeper ones next. Fair's fair, though.

3. Dim their kids' future
There's nothing that will make our economic future brighter than under-educating our children, right? That's why, again as a result of sequestration, Head Start literally had to kick preschoolers out of their classrooms this March and removed 57,000 children from the program this September (70,000 kids total are will be affected). If this weren't enough, more than half of public schools have fired personnel due to the ominous cuts — and Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said sequestration "has been one of the good things that has happened." Given that 40 percent of children who don't receive early childhood education are more likely to become a parent as a teenager, 25 percent are more likely to drop out of school, and 70 percent are more likely to be arrested for a violent crime, this is definitely the definition of a "good thing."

4. Erase the roadmap for employment
The United States has one of the stingiest unemployment programs in the developed world and it is getting even stingier. People who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more — 40 percent of the unemployed — have already begun and will continue to lose a large portion of their benefits between January and March. Eight percent of this year's sequestration cuts are coming from unemployment insurance. The logic here is that the program discourages people from looking for work, so why fund something that just makes the unemployed lazier? The evidence, however, proves that government assistance fuels the job searches of these 4.4 million Americans. Yet by the end of December, about 1.3 million will lose their extended jobless benefits if Congress doesn't renew the program. And cuts to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF, or welfare) means there will be even less of safety net to fall back on.

5. Make 'em work till they drop
President Obama put Social Security cuts in his budget for fiscal year 2014, and Republicans are thrilled. Switching to a new formula called Chained CPI would lead to benefit cuts of $230 billion dollars in the next ten years. Apparently, it's Social Security that's driving up the debt, as Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said. The irony here, according to The New York Times' Paul Krugman, is that while debt can indirectly make us poor if deficits drive up interest rates and discourage productive investment (they haven't), investment is low because the economy is so weak, partly from cutbacks in public spending and investment — the cuts, such as this one, that supposedly protect Americans from a future of excessive debt. Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa) have been fighting an uphill battle to boost Social Security benefits. But carry on, Congress. What you're doing really makes sense here.

In just a few short decades, we've gone from LBJ's Great Society, where many of these ideas originated, to this Congress' attacks on the poor. According to the Census Bureau, safety net programs keep tens of millions of Americans out of poverty each year. But that's just not the federal government's priority anymore. This Congress' message: It's every man for himself.

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