How Can We Eliminate Poverty?
by Ted Miller
(originally published in Tumbleweird February 2022)
Have you ever responded to a charity request to support something you believed in? How about a personal request to help someone in need? Have you donated to a homeless shelter, a local food bank, or one of those Facebook requests to help pay for unexpected medical bills?
I think most of us have a natural desire to help others. According to the National Philanthropic Trust (nptrust.org), individual Americans gave over $470 billion to charitable organizations in 2020. All that charitable giving may help, but it isn’t helping enough.
Almost 12 million children in the United States — one in six — live in poverty, more than most other developed nations. As I wrote in my January 2020 column, philanthropy is a terrible way to fight poverty. In spite of America’s generous giving, philanthropy does not do enough to feed the hungry, heal the sick, or house the homeless. Twelve percent of Americans live below the poverty line, and 18.5 million of them are in deep poverty with a household income of less than half the poverty threshold (census.gov). Thirty million people still lack health insurance. One in eight Americans are food insecure. Half a million are homeless.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. What if together we could do something to end poverty in America? Something more effective and efficient than responding to a charity request or a Facebook post with a few dollars?
Last year, the American Rescue Plan Act enhanced and expanded the child tax credit program, providing monthly payments to families with children. The program reduced child poverty by more than 40%. According to studies summarized by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, low-income families overwhelmingly used that money to pay for food, utilities, housing, school supplies, and medicine. In all, 36 million families received benefits from the expanded child tax credit program.
Those payments expired in December, putting millions of children back below the poverty line. The tax credit payments would have been continued in the Build Back Better legislation passed by the House, but that bill has so far failed to pass in the Senate. The help that so many families desperately needed suddenly stopped.
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, has received most of the blame for objecting to the child tax credits. Parroting conservative talking points of the last 40 years, Senator Manchin is concerned that the poor will use that money on drugs or non-essential luxuries and that the payments will make them not want to work. Ronald Reagan’s ‘welfare queen’ tropes come to mind. This perspective blames the poor for being poor while ignoring the systems that prevent the poor from pulling themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps.
But putting all the blame for this failure on Senator Manchin is misplaced. He is only one of one hundred senators. None of the fifty Republican senators support continuing the expanded child tax credit, much less any other social programs to help Americans in need.
Every year, Congress debates whether the poor are deserving of the help they receive. Months of arguing and negotiating leads to watered down bills that fail to get at the root cause of the problem. As a society, we seem to be afraid that somehow our tax dollars are going to be given to someone who doesn’t deserve them. Why don’t we have that same hesitancy when it comes to charity? Do you make sure that everyone who shows up to your local food bank has a job before you donate or volunteer? Before you decide to give, do you require that your local homeless shelter turn away drug addicts and the unemployed?
This idea that the poor have to earn the help they receive hurts all of us. Children who grow up in poverty, who suffer from inadequate nutrition, who don’t get an education, are impacted for life. Eliminating this suffering is not only the right thing to do; it will also improve our society and our economy. Reducing poverty is an investment in our future.
The expanded child tax credits cost about $100 billion per year. It has been estimated that we could eliminate poverty in America with less than $200 billion per year.
Last month Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. This so-called ‘must pass’ legislation passed in the House 316–113 and in the Senate 88–11, authorizing $768 billion dollars for fiscal year 2022, $24 billion more than the president requested. There was very little debate on whether this amount of spending was truly necessary. No argument about whether the billions given to huge defense contractors for weapons systems was a good investment. No discussion about how to pay for those systems.
I’m not saying we don’t need a military or that defense spending is unnecessary. But where is the debate on balancing the needs for defense with the needs for taking care of our citizens? Why is it that we can find the money to build new weapons systems that we don’t need, but we can’t afford to lift children out of poverty?
We’ve somehow been convinced that the government is the problem, not the solution. And so, our government — those whom we elect to make these decisions about priorities and who deserves help — continue to vote in the interests of corporations and the wealthy while telling the rest of us to help ourselves.
We can do better.