Fifty years ago, in his first major speech as president, and only six weeks after President Kennedy had been assassinated, President Lyndon Johnson announced a War on Poverty. Congress then enacted a series of far-reaching programs that changed the American landscape forever. In the decade following President Johnson’s announcement, poverty in America was cut by one third.
Back then, our political system functioned differently than it does today. Although the political parties staked out different positions on key issues, and the party out of power formed a loyal opposition to the majority party, in the end deals were made through compromise, and Congress addressed the problems of the day.
Today we have a deep and seemingly irreconcilable partisan divide in Congress. On issue after issue, the parties have staked out polarized positions and brook no compromise. This partisan gridlock results in little or nothing ever being done to address our nation’s major problems.
All Americans are victims of Congress’s inaction. But the burden arguably falls heaviest on low-income people, who have the most to lose under the status quo.
For the past six years, the Shriver Center has documented and ranked the performance of every member of Congress in fighting poverty. A surprising number of the floor votes taken by Congress each year, on bills that cover a wide range of subjects, affect the vital interests of low-income people. This year we selected 18 votes in the Senate and another 18 votes in the House that we determined, with the help of our panel of subject matter experts, to be of the greatest significance to people living in poverty. In 2013, about half of these votes had to do with the funding of government programs important to people in poverty. Many of the other votes related to the rights of low-income people, including the rights to vote, to receive needed public benefits, to fair treatment in the workplace, to access free legal services, and to be free of hunger.
The Poverty Scorecard grades each member based on his or her score on these votes. Our primary finding – that 97% of the members of the United States Senate and 95% of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives score at one extreme or the other -- confirms the extreme nature of the partisan divide. Moderates are supported by only a handful of legislative districts and states. As long as legislative districts lean heavily toward one party or the other, the only threat to a member’s reelection is a primary challenge from someone in the member’s own party who is more extreme. This inclines members to vote in an even more partisan way. In such an electoral environment, compromise is politically dangerous.
The Poverty Scorecard also shows—again—that states with the highest poverty rates tend to have Congressional delegations with the worst voting records on poverty-related issues. Why this result? Is the backlash against poor people stronger in states that have more poor people?
Please review our 2013 Poverty Scorecard. See how your member of Congress is graded and let him or her know whether you are heartened or disappointed. Look at the records of other members. Review the vote summaries to learn what were the most important poverty-related votes in Congress last year. While the results may not surprise you, they document the state of Congress and our democracy today.