Sunday Washington Post: Spinning Myths About the Poor

James Q. Wilson’s January 29 op-ed in the Washington Post­­­­—“Angry about inequality? Don’t blame the rich”—is oh so polite, and oh so offensive, as it peddles myth after myth that essentially add up to this: the poor have no one but themselves to blame, they’re not that poor anyway, and taxing rich people won’t help them.

Wilson argues that for the poor to rise we must “encourage parental marriage” and “induce them to join the legitimate workforce.” He points out that the poor have things like plumbing and heat, “a telephone, a television set, and a clothes dryer,” and there are fewer malnourished children. He says improving low-income mobility “has nothing to do with taxing the rich” and “the problem facing the poor is not too little money.”

“He’s right, there are fewer malnourished children and less substandard housing—largely because of public policy, which costs money,” says Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman, who accompanied Senator Robert Kennedy on his poverty tour as an aide and is author of a forthcoming book, So Rich, So Poor. “Food stamps, Medicaid, housing vouchers, energy assistance—they all require resources, and they’ve all faced cuts.”

Wilson says ultimately the plight of the poor is about “too few skills and opportunities to advance themselves.”

“As though the hundreds of billions in high-income tax breaks couldn’t serve some useful purpose in that regard—for education, child care, subsidized jobs, infrastructure investment that would create jobs,” says Debbie Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs.

Here are just a few things made worse by tax breaks for the wealthy: unequal schools segregated by race, class and quality that are funded by property taxes. Hungry kids who aren’t ready to learn and early interventions that would significantly improve brain development are shortchanged. Parents working two or even three jobs who can’t pull their families out of poverty, afford childcare or take job training or community college courses to better themselves because those don’t count towards meeting their (low-wage) work requirement for welfare benefits.

And what of that push for marriage? It would be great if there were all kinds of marital opportunities out there for happy families, and one idea is to start looking at the cradle to prison pipeline if that’s a serious societal goal. Another important point noted by Half in Ten in its Restoring Shared Prosperity report is that marriage isn’t the only route to the antipoverty affect conservatives tout—it’s two incomes that are key. Only 4 percent of households with more than one earner are in poverty as compared to 24 percent with a single earner. So Wilson might consider calling for funding of summer and year-round programs aimed at connecting disadvantaged youth to education and work experience, or subsidized jobs that were supported by Democratic and Republican governors alike.

Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services in Appalachian Ohio, has been working with poor people for over thirty years.

“The right would have you believe that the poor are pretty well off and their plight is due entirely to their own character flaws,” Frech told me. “They don’t believe that poor parents have any incentive to work hard to make life better for their kids—as if there is a means test for loving your children. But the poor parents I know experience anguish watching their children go without basic necessities, and they suffer greatly from cuts in programs. The depth of their poverty and daily struggle to survive make the inadequately funded education programs available to them unlikely to succeed. On the other hand, the massive tax cuts granted to rich people at the federal and state levels haven’t been invested in jobs here but in offshore investments and new technologies that have increased their profits at the expense of people in this country.”

The dream is not a TV, a dryer and a coffee maker in every home. It’s equal opportunity regardless of race and class. And, Jimmy, that takes money.

GOP (and Dems?) to Poor Kids: Pony Up

In his State of the Union address one year ago, President Obama drew a clear line on deficit reduction when he said, “Let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.”

A year later, he and his fellow Democrats have an opportunity to make good on that commitment, because House Republicans passed the “Refundable Child Tax Credit Eligibility Verification Reform Act” that would raise taxes on working poor families in order to (very) partially pay for a payroll tax cut extension. If the GOP has its way—and a House and Senate conference committee is considering it now—only taxpayers filing with a Social Security number would be eligible for refunds under the Child Tax Credit, not people using “individual taxpayer identification numbers (ITINs).”

Republicans are banking on anti-immigrant sentiment to win the day because many people using ITINs are undocumented workers—never mind that they are paying both income and payroll taxes.

Over 80 percent of impacted families are Latino. They earn on average about $21,000 annually, less than the poverty line for a family of four, and stand to lose $1800 on average. That’s money families need to survive, going towards food, rent, heat, clothing, childcare—which is exactly why the tax credit was created in the first place. In fact, it kept 1.3 million children out of poverty in 2009. According to the National Immigration Law Center, 5.5 million children would be affected by the new law, “4 million of whom are US citizens but all of whom are deserving of our support.”

All of this burden would be placed on the backs of what the President calls “our most vulnerable citizens”—children—for at most $24 billion in savings over ten years. The payroll tax extension is expected to cost $120 billion. Just a .2 percent surtax on millionaires could raise as much dough as the child tax increase—a 1.9 percent surtax on them would generate $155 billion over ten years. But what fun is that when you can demonize the poor, immigrants and undocumented workers in one fell swoop?

According to people close to House-Senate negotiations, this bill has a shot at becoming the law of the land. “It’s my sense that the Democratic Leadership is preparing to sell out on the issue to get a compromise,” one senior House staffer told me.

Stand up for kids in poverty, Latinos, immigrants, families and an America that doesn’t pile onto those already bearing the heaviest load—here.

Food for Learning

Extensive research demonstrates strong links between eating school breakfast and dietary, health, and education outcomes for children and adolescents. So a new report from Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) showing that less than half (48 percent) of low-income children receiving school lunch also receive school breakfast is worth paying attention to.

“This is as much an academic excellence program as it is an anti-hunger program,” said FRAC president Jim Weill. “And states and schools that want to get serious about increasing breakfast participation have to get serious about implementing breakfast in the classroom.”

A common factor for states with high participation rates—like New Mexico, South Carolina, Vermont and the District of Columbia which all serve breakfast to at least 60 percent of the students who receive school lunch—is that many of the schools in those states operate “breakfast in the classroom” programs. These programs allow students to eat breakfast in their classrooms at the beginning of the school day or early in the day. States not doing such a great job—and Nevada, home of Saturday’s Republican caucus, is the worst with just 33 percent of low-income kids who participate in the lunch program also receiving breakfast—don’t have strong breakfast in the classroom programs.

Traditional, cafeteria-served breakfast before school has a lot of problems: buses and cars arrive late—especially in urban transit; the thirty-cent co-payment is too high for some families; there is a stigma of heading to the cafeteria for a meal for “poor kids.” Breakfast in the classroom avoids these obstacles and can save money on cafeteria operations too boot.

If states could reach 60 percent participation, FRAC estimates 2.4 million more low-income children would be added to the breakfast program and states would receive an additional $583 million in child nutrition funding.

Who Will Benefit From the Recovery?

Los Angeles County transportation officials announced that for major transit and road projects, “project labor agreements” (PLAs) will ensure that 40 percent of the hours go to people who live in economically disadvantaged communities, and 10 percent of that work is reserved for people “suffering from homelessness, chronic unemployment, or other challenges.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, this will lead to “significant” opportunities for disadvantaged workers, since the plan is to spend “tens of billions of dollars in the years ahead” on subway, highway, light rail, and commuter rail projects. Supervisor Mark Ridley, board member of the LA County Metro Transit Authority, noted that these are “highly skilled union jobs that lead to a middle-class lifestyle” and the PLAs should be “a model for the rest of the nation.”

This good news comes none too soon for California construction workers who had a 27 percent unemployment rate in 2010.

Margaret Simms, Institute fellow and director of Urban Institute’s Low-Income Working Families project, praises the effort for trying to help construction workers and also economically disadvantaged people for whom “joblessness is a constant problem,” not just in a recession. She adds a word of caution, however.

“If these are union jobs, efforts need to be made to provide access to union membership for these potential workers,” she told me.

Fun With Mitt

Mitt reveals a problem he has with multi-tasking—“you can choose where to focus: you can focus on the rich, you can focus on the very poor, my focus is on middle-income Americans”—and also a problem with poor people.

Mitt equates concerns about economic inequality and social mobility with preferring China, Russia, Cuba or North Korea over America.

Mitt’s worst nightmare: the discussion of wealth distribution “in quiet rooms” is suddenly interrupted.

What will Mitt do next? Please offer your predictions in comments below.

GOP Contenders, on to Nevada

Child Poverty in Nevada:

144, 204 or 22% of all children are poor (less than $18,530 for a family of three).

65,642 or 10% of children live in extreme poverty (less than $9300 for family of three).

27,680 adults and children receive cash assistance (TANF).

$383 is maximum monthly TANF cash assistance for family of three.

Further Reading

House Strip Club Vote Misses the Point,” Melissa Boteach
Komen’s Blow to Planned Parenthood and Women,” Laura Session Stepp
Extend Emergency Unemployment Benefits,” Rep. Barbara Lee
A Poverty Crisis, Not an Education Crisis,” Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff
Prince Fielder and the Poor Folks,” Jack Lessenberry

Get Involved
Fully Renew Unemployment Insurance
National Women’s Law Center
Spotlight on Poverty

Tweet of the Week
“Tough choices” usually means taking money from people who can’t hire enough lobbyists—poor people. @NLCHPhomeless

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. You can e-mail me at and follow me on Twitter.