What Have We Done About Poverty?

By Rachel Travis
December 13, 2012

A Look at the History of Federal Legislation and the Effect It Has Had on Poverty

A few weeks ago my mentor approached me and asked me to create a timeline that would show major legislative actions we as a country have done to address poverty. I realized I could talk about current poverty legislation and our current poverty statistics, but I did not know about the evolution of poverty. Luckily, I was not simply given this seemingly daunting task, but was also given the resource “So Rich, So Poor” by Peter Edelman.

In his book, Edelman describes a trip he and Robert Kennedy took to Mississippi as a part of a fact-finding effort in order to reauthorize the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964. At the time, the War on Poverty was in its beginning stages and what Kennedy saw reflected that. Like so many people in this country, myself included, Kennedy had never found himself face-to-face with starving American children. The focus of the trip shifted to fact finding about why so many Americans were starving.

The timeline starts with the publication of the first poverty statistics in America, in1959, when 22.4% of the population fell below the poverty line. The timeline ends with the 2012 poverty statistics, which show that 15.1% of the population currently falls below the poverty line. The points in between are fairly balanced in number, with positive and negative actions, and they represent interesting points in American history.

Looking to the timeline, the 1971 amendment to the 1964 Food Stamp Act was passed, and people making zero income still had to pay for food stamps. This amendment made it so food stamps could not cost more than 30% of a family’s total income. The 1971 amendment to the SNAP Act was so effective in making food stamps more accessible that the number of participants doubled in a year, going from 4,340,000 people to 9,368,000.

Not surprisingly, two years following the passage of this amendment the country saw the lowest poverty numbers it had ever seen, and has seen to date (11.1%). This leads to an interesting year, 1973. 1973 saw both a historic low in our national poverty rate, 11.1% of the country was impoverished, but it was also a year when President Nixon attempted to reduce the number of people who were on welfare by requiring that all welfare recipients be required to work in order to receive their benefits. This concept was coined “workfare” and the intention behind it was that people in poverty who were receiving welfare benefits should be actively seeking, and in theory gaining, employment. Then there would be fewer people who needed welfare benefits.

Workfare remains in place today. NETWORK’s third-quarter Connection of 2010 included the story of a mother of four who had been receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) for four to five years. Not only is this woman responsible for her children, but she and some of her children have special needs. The work program system has been slow to work with her, making finding employment exceptionally difficult. When NETWORK learned of her story, it had been 9 months of her trying through social services and her work program to be placed into a more appropriate training program. For some people, like this woman, there are simply not enough hours in the day to comply with all the necessary workfare regulations and take care of a family at the same time.

In 1981 President Reagan made $20 billion worth of cuts to both welfare and food stamp programs, which is over $50 billion in current dollars. The justification behind the cuts was, “too much of our resources are going to nonproductive purposes.” That was according to John Block, the Secretary of Agriculture at the time. That same year the number of people who were using food stamps increased from 21,082,000 to 22,430,000, for the 1,348,000 people who started using food stamps those $20 billion in resources were going towards a very productive purpose of helping to keep food on the table.

What this timeline represents is how legislation regarding poverty in the United States affects people. Politicians and media pundits talk so casually about cutting a couple billion dollars from one program or another few billion dollars from another, what is lost in that posturing is that those programs, the ones like Social Security and SNAP, are the ones that keep millions of hardworking Americans from falling into poverty, as well as supporting those who are in poverty.

For me, reading about starving children in my own country put everything else in the history of federal actions affecting poverty in the United States into context. Even though these children are long grown, I saw every legislative action I put on the Poverty Timeline as an action that directly affected those children. Not only do I see a child in poverty as being just a child in poverty; but I believe that a child in poverty represents a family in poverty.

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