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Killing the American Dream

Top Five Efforts by Conservatives to Make It Harder to Escape Poverty

SOURCE: AP/ J. Scott Applewhite

Among the efforts by conservatives to make escaping poverty harder was Sen. Jeff Session's (R-FL) proposed amendment to make access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program more difficult.

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Americans across our nation recognize that the wealthiest 1 percent made out like bandits during the Great Recession and are doing just fine today while the other 99 percent of us struggle to make ends meet amid the slow economic recovery. But it’s also important to focus on what conservative policymakers are proposing to do to those among us who are at the very bottom of the economic ladder.

Conservative policymakers are developing proposals and policies that would help lock Americans living in poverty out of the American Dream. Here are the top five dream killers from just the past 30 days.

Deficit reduction efforts threaten funding for the social safety net

Over the past 30 days the congressional super committee charged with reducing the federal budget deficit by at least $1.2 trillion is developing a plan that could cause members from both sides of the aisle to support harmful funding cuts for a broad range of antipoverty programs. According to the most recent reports, the six Republican members of the 12-member panel would go further than their Democratic counterparts, making significant cuts of $700 billion from health care programs and other sources that threaten Social Security and the broad range of other services offered by federal agencies. They would couple this with minimal tax increases plus new income tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. And still there are members of their caucus who complain that this modest proposal goes too far by increasing any taxes.

Similarly, Republicans from the Senate Finance Committee developed recommendations that included plans to cap funding for Medicaid alongside other reform measures that resemble what was done with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in the 1990s. Although TANF has benefited many families, its block-grant funding structure plus funding caps have failed some families, crimping the program’s ability to fulfill its primary function of providing temporary income assistance to families in need. According to analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the TANF legislative overhaul in the 1990s meant that many families in need could not get aid from the program when the Great Recession hit, and some states had to reduce cash-benefit levels.

Additionally, Congress continued work on legislation that will fund government programs for fiscal year 2012 beginning last month with deficit-reduction efforts looming large and threatening program budgets in areas such as energy assistance, housing, and education and training. In October, for example, House Republicans introduced legislation that would create a $3.1 billion funding shortfall for worker-training programs and drop about 1 million students from the Pell grant program.

Since then, a final agreement reached on funding for agriculture, housing, transportation, and other programs left some major poverty programs untouched by significant cuts. But there were some losers, such as legal assistance for the poor and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which seeks to spurn job creation and healthy eating in low-income neighborhoods.

Conservatives seek to cut funding for food assistance

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) introduced an amendment that ultimately failed but would have made it more difficult for families to access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides food stamps to Americans in need. Citing an increase in food stamp usage as a reason for his proposal, Sen. Sessions seemed to have forgotten that our nation just exited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression—a factor that should lead to greater usage of social safety net programs.

Sen. Sessions also alluded to potential fraud and error in SNAP as another reason to tighten eligibility. But he’s wrong. Program data from 2006 to 2010 demonstrate a fraud rate of only about 1 percent and an error rate of 3.81 percent, including overpayment and underpayment, which is the lowest level in the program’s history.

Food programs continue to be threatened by the actions of the congressional super committee. One proposal was to cut $4 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program.

American Jobs Act faces a rocky road in Congress

Efforts to pass President Barack Obama’s American Job Act stalled with a failed Senate vote in mid-October—most Democrats supported the legislation while most Republicans opposed it. Examples of the proposed legislation’s aid to low-income workers include a jobs program, infrastructure and school facility improvements that would create jobs for construction workers and others, and an extension of unemployment insurance benefits.

The legislation failed because these job-creating steps were to be paid for by a tax on those Americans making over $1 million a year—something conservatives in Congress opposed. Conservative rhetoric about class warfare and their reluctance to raise taxes on the wealthy persists despite evidence that many of the top 1 percent of income earners in our nation are not paying their fair share. Congress continues to debate the legislation and is considering passing portions of it. But some of these separate bills, such as the infrastructure piece, also recently failed in the Senate.

Florida lawmakers defend mandatory drug testing for TANF recipients

Elsewhere, conservatives in the Florida Legislature continue to defend their recently passed law that requires TANF participants to submit to mandatory drug tests that they must pay for. The law ignored state agency findings that drug use was no more prevalent among Florida’s welfare recipients than it was in the population as a whole. On October 24, a federal court temporarily halted the drug testing until there is greater opportunity for judicial review. The state recently filed an appeal of the decision and its conservative governor continued to defend the law.

Unfortunately, some Florida state lawmakers are deciding to spend valuable time and resources feeding the stereotype that welfare recipients are drug users and erecting a new barrier (costly mandatory testing) rather than providing needed assistance. Their efforts represent time taken away from other activities such as reducing Florida’s 10.6 percent unemployment rate, connecting TANF recipients to living wage jobs, or helping those who actually have substance-abuse problems get rehabilitation services.

State legislatures continue to push voter laws that disenfranchise the poor

Conservatives in states across the country have legislation pending that would make it more difficult for some Americans to vote, silencing their voices in the political process and making it easier for policymakers to ignore their economic and other needs. These states are a part of a trend—multiple states, including most recently Mississippi, have passed laws this year that could make it harder for over 5 million eligible voters to cast a ballot in the 2012 elections. Many of the proposed and existing laws are focused on requiring photo IDs at the polls, curtailing early voting, or making it more difficult to register to vote.

These new laws will disproportionately disenfranchise low-income Americans, but also people of color and the elderly, possibly making it easier for conservatives to win elections.

While widespread voter fraud would undermine democracy in the United States, these measures largely are unnecessary, as recent studies of voter fraud show that it is similar in frequency to being struck by lightning. With current penalties for voter fraud largely eradicating the problem, these measures can also be unnecessarily costly—the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center’s estimated costs to its state to be $11 million in only the first year.

What the 99 Percent can do about efforts to kill the American Dream

It is important that the 99 percent continue to be informed and engaged. Some will do so through the Occupy Wall Street movement, others will join valuable networks such as the Half in Ten Campaign, and of course, there is the option of making multiple connections that promote solidarity among the diversity of people who comprise the 99 percent. They can also reach out to their elected representatives and candidates for office to see where they stand on these and other issues. They can further contribute to the dialogue via social networking, letters to the editor, and volunteer efforts. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they can be persistent in their efforts to create positive change.

Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity team at the Center for American Progress. John Craig is an intern working with the Economic Policy team at the Center.

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