Spotlight Exclusives

How Can the New Congress Help Low-Income Americans: Four Views

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The new Congress will face many substantial challenges, including how to help low-income families as poverty in America continues to rise. Spotlight has gathered reflections from four experts on both sides of the aisle to address the question: what should the agenda in the new Congress be with regard to low-income families?


D Weinstein.jpg Deborah Weinstein

 Executive Director, Coalition on Human  Needs


 One hundred million Americans are poor or near poorone-third of our nation.    The 112th Congress should make its most urgent priority protecting these people  from the  continuing consequences of the  Great Recession. Unfortunately, it  looks as though the most urgent priority for advocates will be protecting low-  income people  from the 112th Congress.


Although the unemployment rate remains well over nine percent and even several prominent economists known as deficit hawks agree that now is not the time for massive cuts in federal spending, the House leadership has proposed to slash domestic programs by one-fifth. This inevitably impacts education, child care, public health, nutrition aid for young and old alike, services for people with disabilities, and protections for children threatened by abuse or neglect. 


Human needs advocates must unite to tell Congress and the administration that a return to sustained economic growth requires preventing service cuts that further harm low-income and vulnerable people.


In the past, there has been bipartisan support for expanding such services as the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program (WIC) and community health centers. Advocates must find champions for these and other services that help people find and keep jobs and build economic security for themselves and for the nation.


haskinsr_portrait.jpg Ron Haskins

 Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution


 The most important task facing Congress in 2011 is making progress on the  deficit. No one can predict exactly what will happen if America continues to live  on borrowed money, but try to find a financial expert who thinks we۪re not  headed  toward disaster.


If Congress and the President fail to make progress on the deficit, we will eventually suffer a financial meltdown and many federal programs will sustain deep cuts. President Obama has repeatedly voiced concern about the deficit and even appointed a commission that has now put a host of good ideas for deficit reduction on the table.


On the Republican side, Paul Ryan, the leading Republican deficit hawk, has taken over the House Budget Committee; Speaker John Boehner says publicly that ending some tax expenditures is a good idea; Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp says he۪s interested in tax reform that broadens the tax base and reduces tax rates.


These are hopeful signs, but it۪s difficult to be optimistic that either Republicans or Democrats will have the courage to actually take benefits away from or increase the taxes paid by voters. Their actions to date are paltry.


Expect no more than modest cuts in some appropriated programs and mountains of rhetoric in 2011. When next Christmas arrives, we will still be staring into the deficit abyss.


ewen.jpg Danielle Ewen

 Director of Child Care and Early Education, Center for Law and Social  Policy


 The President has declared that America is once again at a moment in history 

 in which we must choose who we are as a nation.


 Right now, we are a nation in which millions of families and their children are strugglingone in four children under the age of three lives in poverty, and nearly one in two belong to a low-income family at 200 percent or less of the federal poverty line.


Research demonstrates that these statistics have real implications for babies. At nine months, babies in lower-income families face a gap in cognitive development and are less likely to be in good or excellent health than their higher income counterparts. 


We can help alleviate the short- and long-term effects of poverty on children and families through public and private investments. Public insurance programs can provide help for parents through improved training for pediatricians to identify the full range of developmental needs of our infants and toddlers. Of similar importance is ensuring that capacity within these medical offices and clinics can link families to the supports they need such as the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), home visiting, and quality early childhood programs.  


Congress can also put resources into hard-working parents’ hands through targeted and refundable tax credits designed to buttress our safety nets.


StuartButler.jpg Stuart Butler

 Distinguished Fellow and Director, Center for Policy Innovation, Heritage  Foundation


 With a slow economy and staggering deficits, the best way to help low-income  Americans is a well-designed plan to reduce the long-term debt while spurring  economic growth. Without that, America will follow France and Britain with  crisis-  driven draconian cutsand low-income Americans will suffer most. But slamming employers and (yes, well-off) investors with higher taxes to cover deficits means even fewer new jobs for low-income households.


Congress must do two things to get lower and smarter spending. First, it must redesign two big entitlements that are driving up spending and debt and that benefit the affluent without doing enough for the poor. Congress should gradually transform Medicare and Social Security into true insurance programs, increasing benefits for low-income seniors while phasing out checks and health subsidies for the affluent.


Second, Congress should subject all programs including those for low-income working-age Americans to the kind of serious evaluation that rarely happens. For example, the federal government۪s recent study of Head Start shows high costs but little or no lasting impact on low-income kids. We don۪t even know if most programs work. 


Congress can help get total spending under control while actually helping the poor by ending failing programs and boosting anti-poverty programs that are proven to be effective.

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