A Real Agenda to Cut Poverty
The American Dream is premised on the idea that the circumstances of your birth should not determine how far you can rise. Yet a growing body of research shows that a child's ZIP code too often limits her life chances, with factors such as failing schools, dangerous streets, lack of quality jobs, and a dearth of community resources coming together to perpetuate poverty. And a new report suggests even more bad news for the American Dream: As it turns out, where you live isn't just correlated with how high up the ladder you can climb; it also helps to determine the point at which you fall off altogether.
Multiple studies have confirmed that the rich typically live longer than those in struggling families, and that this gap is growing. A new study from Raj Chetty and his colleagues underscores that this gap is unconscionable, with nearly 15 years' difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest American men and over 10 years' difference for American women.But the study reveals something new as well: that the gap is place-based, with significant differences in life expectancy among lower-income individuals based on where they live.
Among the top 100 commuting zones, poor individuals had longer life expectancies in wealthier areas with more educated individuals. A poor person in New York City, for example, is expected to live years longer than a person with the same income in Detroit. In other words, there are not just "two Americas" — the rich and the rest of us — but also dozens and dozens of Americas on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, with policy choices dramatically shaping not just quality of life but also the length of it.
These disturbing findings come out as issues of poverty, inequality, and mobility have taken center stage in the political conversation. Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Tim Scott recently held a GOP "poverty summit" in South Carolina. Further, the speaker has indicated that later this spring, House Republicans will be releasing a "white paper" synthesizing their ideas to cut poverty.
But if past is prologue, many of the House's recommendations will be a recipe to exacerbate and perpetuate the disparities that Chetty's study unearthed. First, under the Republicans' budget blueprint, struggling families would suffer no matter where they live. The recently proposed House budget protects tax cuts for millionaires while deriving more than three-fifths of its cuts from programs that help low- and moderate-income people — programs that have cut the nation's poverty rate nearly in half.
But it gets worse. The solutions favored by conservatives have typically been to consolidate and flat-fund federal programs that are currently helping struggling families, and to send these programs to the states. There have been many euphemisms for this policy over time: block grants, "empowering local communities," "increased flexibility," and, most recently, Speaker Ryan's "opportunity grants." But new packaging doesn't change the reality. Block-granting and sending low-income programs to the states has historically resulted in deep cuts to core assistance programs, the inability of programs to respond when hardship rises during recessions, and wildly different access to help based on where one lives.
One example is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, or TANF. In 1996, the federal guarantee of income assistance was sent to the states as a flat-funded block grant. Since that time, the value of the block grant has declined by nearly one-third, and the share of eligible families able to turn to income assistance has dramatically fallen. During the Great Recession, as unemployment and poverty were rising, some states tried to help as many families as possible, whereas other states put up new barriers that resulted in fewer struggling families having access to help.
Now conservatives are proposing to do the same thing to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, our nation's most important defense against hunger. SNAP not only kept 10 million people from falling into poverty last year, but the program actually boosts long-term outcomes for children, including their health as adults.
Wildly varying programs at the state level isn't limited to TANF. Many states do not have a stellar record when it comes to acting in the best interest of their low-income citizens. Nineteen states have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, leaving 4 million Americans without health insurance. "Flint" is a one-word reminder of how unresponsive states can be to disadvantaged groups that lack political power. And while conservatives trumpet the importance of flexibility and local control, many conservative states have passed policies to "preempt" more progressive localities from implementing measures that help families, such as raising their cities' minimum wage or passing paid-sick-days legislation so that parents don't lose needed income or their job if the school nurse calls them to come pick up their sick child.
As candidates and lawmakers debate solutions to address poverty and mobility, the last thing we need are policies that replicate and perpetuate the geographic disparities that leave a struggling worker in Texas with no access to health insurance while his counterpart in California can access Medicaid.
Instead, we should build off of the momentum in states and localities that are alleviating poverty and investing in families, which, not coincidentally, can also significantly reduce the chronic stress associated with a wide variety of illness affecting life expectancy. As noted by the Washington Post in its coverage of the Chetty study, "Among the 100 largest commuting zones ranked by the researchers, six of the top eight for low-income life expectancies are in California" — a state that has pursued many policies that mitigate the stresses associated with poverty, such as paid parental leave, a higher minimum wage, and investments in early care and education.
A serious agenda to cut poverty and promote economic opportunity would include these policies and more, investing in job creation, expanding access to high-quality childcare, and increasing opportunities for post-secondary education and training. It would help families manage work and caregiving through paid family leave and fair, flexible, and predictable work schedules; it would protect and strengthen the safety net, which is currently reducing poverty by nearly half. Finally, it would invest in high-poverty neighborhoods, as well as remove barriers to opportunity for Americans with criminal records.
There are many reasons for lawmakers and candidates to embrace these policies, not least of which is that they are very popular with Americans across the political spectrum. But Chetty and his colleagues have now given us one more important reason to reject the failed conservative proposals and instead make needed investments to cut poverty and boost opportunity.
Melissa Boteach is the vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.