How Republicans sugarcoat American poverty

Conservatives are cynically downplaying American poverty to slash the safety net. Don't buy it.

A street in Baltimore.

One of the last vestiges of bipartisan Washington is in danger of being corrupted by conservative myths about poverty.

The Senate just passed their bipartisan version of the farm bill, after the House narrowly passed their own far more partisan bill last week. Typically lauded as one of the few compromises left in Washington — due to its funding of both crop subsidies and food stamps — the farm bill has hit roadblocks this year as House Republicans aim to make some of the harshest changes ever to the food assistance program. It's yet another underhanded attack on the poor from President Trump and House Republicans.

Fortunately, the Senate bill rejected altering the food stamp program, resulting in an 86-11 vote. With any luck, the final piece of legislation will look more like the Senate’s version than the House's, but it's not guaranteed as Republicans in the lower chamber are gearing up to fight for expanded restrictions to food stamps when they go to conference.

While the Senate version is fairly moderate, the House bill is a cesspool of conservative ideas about poverty in the United States. Its most radical change would be the addition of stringent work requirements, which would require almost all adults — even some adults with children — to document working at least 20 hours per week to receive food stamps. House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said the plan will provide a "springboard out of poverty to a good paying job," a clear reiteration of conservative orthodoxy about bootstrap-pulling. However, work requirements just don't work. And such an approach not only links a person's worth to their labor, but ignores the volatility of a low-wage job, systemic racism, and the consequences of poverty (like limited access to transportation) that make it difficult to get and keep a job.

But that might be intentional. Conservatives often downplay American poverty, either by comparing it to hardship in poorer nations or by using misleading measurements, because it's then easier to target and cut social programs.

The farm bill debate comes on the heels of a conservative backlash to the United Nations' special rapporteur's report about U.S. poverty. The damning report from special rapporteur Philip Alston, published in May, states that 40 million Americans live in poverty, 18.5 million live in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in absolute poverty (which is comparative to conditions in extremely poor countries). If this is the case, then booting the unemployed and their families from food stamps — even if they're taking care of children or diligently looking for a job — would not be a solution.

But instead of taking the report seriously, Trump officials are simply denying the extent of poverty in the U.S.

In a letter to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who had urged her to respond to the report, Trump's U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley wrote that it was "patently ridiculous" for the special rapporteur to examine poverty in America, bringing up the absolute poverty of Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. U.S. officials in Geneva then weighed in by claiming that Alston used an "exaggerated figure" for extreme poverty and that actually only 250,000 Americans qualify. They also pushed back by noting the dollar figures the U.S. spends on assistance programs — without mentioning that the administration wants to cut them, of course.

Such specious arguments are something like conservative tradition.

That 250,000 data point, for example, comes from a misleading survey by the conservative Heritage Foundation, as reported in The Washington Post. Instead of using the typical definition of extreme poverty (half the official poverty rate), Heritage defines "extreme poverty" as living on less than $4 a day (including government assistance), or roughly $1,500 per year. Note that the Heritage Foundation also published a report in 2007 titled How Poor are America's Poor? which questioned U.S. poverty because, for one, many poor families own refrigerators.

Heritage isn't the only right-wing think tank hawking suspect research that's gained traction under the Trump administration. The Foundation for Government Accountability has supplied a study that both Trump officials and House Republicans have cited to show that people affected by work requirements are more likely to find employment after they leave assistance. This would seem to strengthen the argument for the House version of the farm bill. But economists say the study is misleading because many people were already working, or would have started working anyway without the work requirement.

Haley reasons that the U.N. shouldn't examine poverty in what she calls the "wealthiest and freest country in the world." But according to the special rapporteur, that's exactly why it's an issue. The U.S.'s "immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live," the report reads. Poor Americans might have cell phones, but what they might not have is affordable housing, health care, food, a job with a living wage, paid sick and family leave — the list goes on.

Yet if most people in poverty can be painted as sitting comfortable with their televisions and their food stored at the proper temperature, then there is little need for public assistance programs, right?

Despite his paeans to "forgotten" Americans, Trump himself has indicated that "welfare reform" is a priority. His 2019 budget proposed slashing social spending by billions of dollars. And in April, Trump signed an executive order to compel his Cabinet members to come up with ways to cut welfare and toughen the rules around who qualifies for benefits. Work requirements (long mandatory in traditional cash welfare programs) are not only being recommended for food stamps, but are now cropping up in Medicaid and have been proposed for housing assistance programs as well.

The U.N. special rapporteur noted that, in the U.S., "the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power." It looks like Trump and the Republican Party are ready to double down on that choice.


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