This Saturday, conservative leaders will gather in South Carolina for the “Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity” co-hosted by Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Tim Scott. With an overall poverty rate of 18 percent in 2014, South Carolina ranks among the 10 poorest states in the country and has one of the lowest rates of health-insurance coverage. And for low-income South Carolinians, these statistics are merely a reminder of the harsh realities they face.
Billed as an opportunity for conservatives to outline their major plans on tackling poverty, the forum comes after months of heightened rhetoric on poverty and inequality—including a poverty tour by then–Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. These events are part of a concerted effort by conservative lawmakers and the media to paint the War on Poverty as a failure, even though the safety net reduced the poverty rate by more than half and lifted 48 million people above the poverty line in 2012.
Unfortunately, this newfound concern for poverty is at odds with a conservative policy agenda that would exacerbate inequality, hardship, and wage stagnation.
Under his “Opportunity Grant” proposal, Ryan has proposed converting a number of programs to state block grants, a decision that nonpartisan analysis suggests would reduce families’ ability to access key programs such as nutrition and housing assistance. In crafting this idea, Ryan and other conservatives often point to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program as a model—even though it does very little to mitigate poverty and hardship and is unresponsive to recessions.
Furthermore, in their most recent congressional budgets, Republicans obtained two-thirds of their cuts from programs helping low- and moderate-income families, while channeling additional resources towards tax cuts for the wealthy.
South Carolinians like Dr. Ebony Hilton take issue with this approach. Dr. Hilton grew up in poverty in Spartanburg, a city located almost 100 miles north of Columbia, as the middle child of a mother with only a high-school education. Now she earns in the six figures and serves as the first black female anesthesiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina. Dr. Hilton credits federal programs like Pell Grants for much of her success. As she told TalkPoverty, “Pell Grants allowed me to pursue higher education because when I was going through college, there was no option to call home for money for books or tuition or fees. The overwhelming amount of debt can be tremendous and can stop people from taking that extra step to pursue their life passion.”
In addition to attempting to gut programs that invest in people like Dr. Hilton, conservatives have stood in the way of policies that would raise stagnant wages, increase access to health insurance, and allow families to better balance the responsibilities of working and caring for themselves and their children.
For example, although a majority of Republican voters support raising the minimum wage, Republicans in Congress continue to block a minimum-wage hike that would actually save $53 billion in nutrition assistance over 10 years. In contrast, longtime state advocates like Sue Berkowitz, who serves as the Director of South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, view increasing wages as a core component of an anti-poverty strategy: “You can’t not examine why we haven’t increased the minimum wage in [nearly] 10 years. We can say all these wonderful things but without real plans, we’re saying we’re comfortable with people being in poverty.”
And for South Carolinians like Yolanda Gordon, conservative opposition to expanding Medicaid and providing access to paid sick days has proved economically destabilizing. Although Gordon has an associate’s degree in occupational therapy and works part-time at a nonprofit helping families of kids with disabilities, she struggles to provide for her three children—each of whom has special medical needs. To add insult to injury, South Carolina has refused to expand Medicaid, leaving her without health coverage.
Due to the intransigence of the state’s conservative leaders, Gordon is one of more than 3 million adults nationwide—and 123,000 South Carolinians—who fall into what is known as the “coverage gap.” That is, her income is too high to qualify her for Medicaid, but too low for the subsidies she needs to afford health insurance. Without these subsidies, the average cost of the least-expensive plan is around $333 per month in South Carolina.
As Gordon battles health issues like high cholesterol—which can lead to heart attacks and strokes—the state’s failure to expand Medicaid has left her in medical purgatory. In a scenario that is all too common, Gordon can’t afford medication and regular checkups without health insurance—in fact, she won’t be able to pay for an exam until next July. In the meantime, she has put herself on a diet to try to manage her condition. As she told TalkPoverty, “For those of us in states that didn’t take part in the Medicaid expansion, we just pray to God that we don’t get sick.”
If she or her children do fall ill, Gordon is not entitled to paid sick days, as employers are not required to provide them under state and federal laws. So if her oldest daughter, who has asthma, is sick at school, Gordon has to choose between earning a paycheck or taking care of her child.
The fact is that people like Yolanda Gordon need more than political posturing—they require higher wages, healthcare, paid sick and family leave, and increased investments in education, training, and other supports. This summit is an opportunity for conservatives to correct their legacy and set forth a policy agenda that matches their newfound rhetoric on poverty. Let’s hope they rise to the challenge.