Poverty Solutions and the Public Safety Net

CAP Action event on how to fit government poverty assistance programs into the current economic reality, and institute structural change across the board.

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“We have not achieved significant progress over the last 30 years” in reducing poverty, which “rises and falls” with the economy, said Reece Rushing, Director of Government Reform at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, at an event last Friday sponsored by the Center for American Progress’s Doing What Works project and the Half in Ten campaign. There are too many “unwarranted administrative hurdles” to benefits for families in need, but luckily the Obama administration wants to “experiment and innovate” to “expand programs that work,” and contract programs that don’t so that we may redirect funds to those who need it most, he added.

Rushing moderated a panel discussion on reforming government antipoverty programs that featured Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America; Kimberley Chin, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions; and Martha Coven, special assistant to the president for mobility and opportunity at the White House Domestic Policy Council. The event also featured the release of a new report by Berg.

“Today, there are 49 million Americans living in households that can’t afford food,” Berg said, and one-third of those eligible for “benefits their tax dollars pay for” do not receive those benefits because of administrative and bureaucratic barriers. According to Berg’s report, there are more than “15 different nutrition assistance programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture alone, each of which have different eligibility requirements, application procedures, and physical locations that people must visit to apply.” This difficult maze discourages those who are entitled to these benefits from applying for them, and wastes billions of dollars in administrative and antifraud measures that cost more to implement than they save.

It’s clear we need to make “the safety net we already have more accessible,” Coven said. The Obama administration “believes in building the evidence base” by aggregating program data to “better inform decision making” and figure out how to “fund what’s proven…and create a pipeline for promising practices” to deliver services efficiently and remove barriers, she said. For example, the Obama administration wants to revamp the federal poverty measure to provide a more “accurate reflection” of hardship in America and show us what we’re doing to alleviate that, Coven said.

But “measuring better should not be a substitute for doing better,” Berg said. It is important to focus on innovative pilot projects, but many established programs already have “decades of evidence” such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, which currently serves 45 percent of all infants born in the United States, according to Berg. The problem Berg explained is that these programs’ information services are “the most antiquated in the country,” which hampers their coordination and implementation.

It’s urgent that we change “the infrastructure” for these programs, said Chin. Current computer and procurement processes are not timely enough to provide the immediate assistance families in need. Moreover, it is too often the case that ambitious policies, announced at the federal or state level, fail to affect change because they are not actually implemented by direct service providers in the counties. Chin commented that, “On the ground, you kind of see a different story sometimes. We can have the best goals and policies,” but without the “nuts and bolts in place,” nothing will get done, Rushing explained.

Berg’s report recommends the federal government “combine all these programs into one streamlined, seamless entitlement program available to all families at 185 percent of the poverty line or below. This means any family of three with a yearly income below $33,873 would be eligible.”

Hunger costs our society roughly “$130 billion a year,” Berg said. Hungry workers are less productive, hungry students cannot focus, and it drains our health care system to help people who could have easily benefited from preventative programs. Berg believes we could fix this problem for a little more than $30 billion annually and put people on the path to “long-term assets development” and self-sufficiency.

Reducing poverty reduces the burden on all of us. According to Coven, all Americans will recognize the benefits of “prevention” savings if they can see the “social returns.”

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