Ryan: Safety Net, Economic Growth Needed to 'Lift People Out of Poverty'

WASHINGTON – A veteran anti-poverty activist told a House panel Wednesday that cutting aid to the poor is “deeply misguided” during a lackluster economy, particularly when programs providing assistance are “enabling struggling families to stay afloat.”

Appearing before the House Budget Committee, Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, said increased funding for various federal poverty programs will help ensure that “the next generation’s adults won’t be scarred by a childhood of deprivation, which if unchecked fuels a cycle of poverty that repeats itself through generations.”

“We don’t have poverty in our midst because we have done too much for people -- we have poverty because we have done too little,” Edelman said. “We should be fixing the policies that have fueled inequality and given birth to an economy that has stopped working for the majority of hard-working people in our country.”

Edelman’s testimony came as part of a series of hearings called by Rep. Paul Ryan, (R-Wis.), the committee chairman, meant to explore the causes and possible solutions to poverty in America.

Ryan, the GOP’s unsuccessful vice presidential candidate in 2012, has made breaking the cycle of poverty a key objective since assuming the chairmanship, although he has been the target of criticism from Democrats and some advocates for the poor for proposing budgets that cut funding for what they view as vital anti-poverty programs.

“It is bad enough that the Republican budget targets these programs for cuts while cutting tax rates for millionaires, but it adds insult to injury to claim, as Republicans do, that shredding the social safety net actually helps those who are struggling every day to make ends meet,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the committee’s ranking member. “This claim is based on a false and pernicious stereotype that many of these struggling individuals prefer to rely on these safety nets – sometimes mockingly referred to as hammocks – rather than get a job.”

“This mindset is a fantasy world approach – that by dismantling anti-poverty programs, we will reduce poverty. It ignores the reality that the fundamental problem is not lack of motivation, but lack of economic opportunity.”

Perhaps most troubling, Van Hollen said, is that the Ryan budget also “chops away at the ladders of opportunity that help our fellow Americans climb out of poverty.”

For his part, Ryan acknowledged that since the 1960s-era War on Poverty “we made progress in some areas—but not enough.” The question isn’t whether the federal government should help, Ryan said, “but how.”

“The evidence is clear -- we do need a safety net but there’s no substitute for economic growth,” Ryan said. “We need both of them to lift people out of poverty. Thanks to today’s lackluster recovery, we’re in a rut—household income is flat and there’s less opportunity to go around.”

Edelman said the U.S. must ensure that safety net programs are sufficiently robust “to stop the irreparable harm caused to children growing up poor.” Without needed assistance, she said,  children who are “poor right now through no fault of their own” will find their potential diminished “unless their families and communities have resources to nourish their development.”

Child poverty, Edelman said, costs the nation more than $500 billion each year in lost productivity, extra education, health and criminal justice costs.

“Too many children still fall through the holes in our already porous safety net,” she said. “We must increase the value of nutrition assistance, remove barriers to accessing benefits, and extend the reach of housing subsidies. We must expand Medicaid to poor parents and others in all states.”

Edelman also the U.S. needs to invest in early childhood practices “so that every child, regardless of the circumstances of birth or lottery or geography, is ready for school and has a fair chance to reach their God-given potential.”

“We know that if we properly support children in their early years, not only will they benefit, but so will all America,” she said. “This is not only the just but the smart and cost-effective thing to do.”

It also is essential, Edelman said, to “create an economy that works for all -- not just the very few at the top.

“Congress should immediately extend unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed and increase the minimum wage,” she said. “Unemployment insurance kept 600,000 children from poverty in 2012. An estimated 3.6 million children could be harmed this year if benefits for long-term uninsured are not extended.”

A minimum wage hike should be “an easy lift,” she said, since it would improve the lives of 14 million children. And a higher minimum wage “would help their parents put nutritious food on the table, keep a roof over their heads and ensure they get the healthcare they need to develop to their full potential.”

Republicans in the Senate on Wednesday blocked consideration of legislation to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10. Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), one of the lawmakers opposed to the proposal, said raising the minimum wage “creates winners and losers – it will raise the wages of some but result in job losses for many low-income workers. The true problem plaguing impoverished Americans is not low wage rates but a lack of good job opportunities. Raising the minimum wage will fail to alleviate poverty because it will fail to address unemployed or underemployed American workers.”

The GOP also has stood in the way of extending unemployment benefits.

Robert L. Woodson, Sr., founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, also appeared before the committee and said poverty is an ongoing problem not because of “an absence of compassion or commitment. It is an absence of new and effective ideas. The compassion for the poor cannot be defined by how much we spend on them.”

The mistake made in addressing the problem, Woodson said, is the tendency to lump everyone in poverty together when in fact there are many reason people are poor, ranging from those who are “just plain broke” to individuals who hit bottom “because of the chances they take and the choices they make.”

“If the government is to make a difference, it must be willing not only to venture beyond the traditional way of thinking, but it must be willing to challenge the poverty industry that systematically perpetuates dependency and absorbs valuable tax dollars,” Woodson said. “The problem is not an absence of compassion or commitment. It is an absence of new and effective ideas. The compassion for the poor cannot be defined by how much we spend on them.”