Congress Has a Key Role to Play in Fighting Poverty But Has Done Too Little

Poverty Scorecard 2014It’s been five years since the official end of the Great Recession and we are seeing some signs of economic recovery. The U.S. gross domestic product grew 2.6% in 2014, the best full year increase since 2010, while gains in the stock market and corporate profits have surpassed their pre-recession levels.

Unfortunately, this growth hasn’t benefitted the vast majority of Americans. Forty-five million Americans continue to live in poverty, and millions more are only one paycheck away from joining them. Real hourly wages fell or stagnated for workers at almost all wage levels, with women and people of color continuing to receive much lower pay than men and whites. Insufficient job growth and growing reliance on low-wage work, in combination with increased costs of living for everything from health care to housing, keep low-income Americans trapped without opportunities for upward mobility.

The good news? We can do something about this if our government adopts the right policies. Poverty is a problem with multiple dimensions and solutions, and we can attack it on many fronts. We know what policy decisions are needed to sustain the economic recovery and help low-income people achieve a better life for themselves and their families.

And we know that they work. Laws passed by Congress, and even bills that are proposed but do not become law, have a profound impact on people living in poverty, for better or for worse. Last year Congress took action on three of the nation’s most important anti-poverty initiatives—the SupplementalNutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps), which helped 46 million Americans put healthy food on their tables; the Section 8 housing program, which provided housing subsidies for 5 million Americans; and the Affordable Care Act, which reduced the number of uninsured Americans by 12 million people. We know from experience that these programs can greatly alleviate the effects of poverty, just as they have done in decades past.  

Every year, the Shriver Center documents and ranks the votes of every U.S. Senator and Representative on the most important poverty-related bills from that legislative session. This year, in consultation with a group of 20 experts on poverty-related topics, we chose the 7 votes in the Senate and the 18 votes in the House that had a significant effect on poor people. While the votes in 2014 covered a wide range of subject areas important to low-income people, the most significant poverty-related votes were in the areas of employment, health care, and housing.

In their biggest strides to reduce poverty, members of the House and Senate worked together across party lines to reauthorize two important programs, workforce development and child care, making them significantly more responsive to the needs of millions of low-income people. In the same year, however, Congress, especially the House, attempted to advance legislation attacking anti-discrimination laws, key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, immigrant youth, and consumer protections. Legislators also obstructed bills to improve equal pay for women, raise the minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits, protect workers from wage theft, and improve college accessibility.

The Poverty Scorecard grades each member of Congress based on his or her votes on these bills. As in past years, 2014’s Poverty Scorecard shows that many states with the highest poverty rates have Congressional delegations with the worst voting records on poverty-related issues.  We can—and must—do more to ensure that Congress acts to advance justice and opportunity for low-income Americans.

When it comes to fighting poverty, we know what to do. And so does Congress. Read the Poverty Scorecard, learn about the relevant bills that were proposed last year, and see how your Senators and Representative voted. If they are not living up to what you know they can do, hold them accountable. 

 

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