Fighting Poverty in the 112th Congress

From Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Common Good Forum (


By Melissa Boteach and Katie Wright, Half in Ten Program, Center for American Progress

February 9, 2011


During the last two years, advocates fighting poverty have seen substantial policy victories benefiting low-income Americans. Congress passed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act in 2009 to strengthen the economy, create jobs, and help families struggling with the effects of the Great Recession. The Recovery Act saved or created approximately 3 million jobs, made improvements to refundable tax credits for working families with children, and shored up important supports such as SNAP/food stamps and childcare, among other important provisions. The Affordable Care Act put health insurance within reach for more low and moderate income families. Wall Street reform took steps to protect low-income families from predatory lending. Even during the lame duck Congress, advocates fought for and won a reauthorization of emergency unemployment benefits through 2011 and the continuation of the improvements to the earned income and child tax credits for another two years. Now, however, these gains — and some of the most important programs for low-income Americans– are at risk.


With the new 112th Congress, advocates working to reduce poverty are facing a more challenging congressional landscape.  The new conservative leadership in the House and the more moderate Senate set the stage for very difficult debates over major proposals that could affect critical programs for years to come.  In particular, the deficit has become a shared concern of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, leading to proposals for dramatic cuts in and changes to programs that create jobs and help struggling families. Needless to say, these developments pose new and far more serious challenges for advocates fighting poverty than we’ve seen in many years and could potentially exacerbate growing income inequality.   In response to the new climate, advocates will need to educate the public — and help defeat — damaging proposals that are likely to harm vulnerable Americans, and protect the legislative victories of the last several years.


One important threat to low-income Americans is proposed cuts to non-security “discretionary” (or appropriated) spending.  Many human needs programs, including affordable housing, child care assistance, Head Start, and job training, fall into this part of the federal budget; meaning that funding for such programs is set at Congress’ “discretion” each year. House Speaker John Boehner has proposed cutting non-security discretionary spending by 21% for fiscal year 2011, bringing funding levels back to fiscal year 2008 levels. Others propose to freeze funding levels for fiscal year 2012 at the 2008 levels, representing an even deeper cut. Should the Boehner proposal be adopted, it would be the deepest spending cut in modern history and would have dire affects on human needs programs low-income families and children rely on every day.  Also, this would sharply cut federal spending to state and local governments, forcing even deeper cuts in their human service programs.


Another serious threat to programs for low-income Americans is the debate on the debt ceiling legislation. According to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the U.S. will hit its debt ceiling this spring, and in order to avoid defaulting on its obligations, Congress will have to raise it. Some Members of Congress are insisting on raising the debt ceiling only on the condition that significant spending reductions are included, with major cuts or structural changes to spending programs.  This poses a major threat to services benefiting low-income people. In the wake of the release of the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission recommendations, several other proposals have surfaced to reduce the deficit, which would jeopardize programs and services for vulnerable Americans. One such strategy would be to place long-term caps on discretionary spending or even on total federal spending, that do not account for growing needs for a growing population and economy.  In effect, these proposals would result in deep cuts to specific programs including childcare, Head Start, affordable housing, and Medicaid.


It is important for advocates to point out to policymakers and to the public that, in general, the major programs for low-income Americans will not contribute in any significant way to the growth in long-term deficit.  In previous deficit reduction agreements (1985, 1990 and 1993), major low-income entitlement programs were exempted from budget cuts.  It’s essential that any agreement to reduce the deficit fully protect these programs.


In addition to defeating threats to key programs, advocates will also need to defend and protect the policy victories of the last few years. While the tax package that passed during the lame duck Congress in 2010 extended unemployment insurance through 2011 and continued the expansions and improvements to refundable tax credits for 2 years, these measures will be up for debate again as their new expiration dates near. Prior to the legislative fight on these issues, advocates can illustrate the success of these programs and build public support over for them the long-term.


The obstacles facing advocates fighting poverty in the 112th congress are substantial. However, this is not the first time advocates have stepped up, on behalf of and alongside, some of America’s most vulnerable. Working together, we can ensure we advocate for low-income Americans in the upcoming Congressional debates and advance sound policies that raise all Americans up and accomplish deficit reduction in a responsible way.

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