JAN. 8 1964: During his first State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson says one of his aims as chief executive is an “unconditional war on poverty” in America. The Trump administration is now claiming that war has been won. 1964 photo by Associated Press
The White House has declared the War on Poverty “largely over and a success,” arguing there are few truly poor Americans and that those who remain on government aid should be pushed toward private employment.
But poverty experts say President Trump’s team is understating the scope of U.S. economic hardship and that their plans to reorient anti-poverty programs would primarily hurt the most vulnerable.
The White House Council of Economic Advisers released a report Thursday saying almost all Americans have access to housing and food, and that poverty has fallen by as much as 90 percent over the past five decades. Only 3 percent of Americans are in poverty, the report said.
The report is the latest in a string of Trump administration efforts to argue poverty is a shrinking problem. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said last month that no more than 250,000 Americans are in “extreme poverty,” condemning a United Nations report saying 18.5 million Americans suffered from extreme impoverishment.
The dispute comes as the White House and Republicans in Congress prepare major changes in the federal government’s approach to poverty programs, pushing plans that would require recipients of government assistance such as Medicaid or food stamps to prove they are actively seeking employment.
The administration and fellow proponents of the work requirements argue low unemployment and a record-high number of job openings have made the private market a reliable and accessible path out of poverty.
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Many poverty experts disagree both with the Trump administration’s assessment of poverty and prescription for addressing it.
“There is a heck of a lot more poverty out there in this country than they are claiming,” said Mark Rank, a professor at the University of Washington in St. Louis who studies poverty. “To say that we have ended the War on Poverty is totally ridiculous.”
Critics say work requirements impose additional barriers to receiving health care and food for those who need it, and that most people who can work are already working or looking for it. The problem, critics add, is that the jobs don’t pay enough for them to get by.
The White House is relying on a measure of poverty that measures consumption – how much money someone spends, rather than their income – to reach its conclusions. The 3 percent number roughly correlates with consumption by those earning under $24,000 for a family of four, said Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank.
“None of these statistics is intended to deny the ways in which millions of Americans sometimes struggle to make ends meets,” the CEA report says. “[But] the vast majority of Americans are able to meet their basic human needs.”
The Census’ official “supplemental” poverty rate, which accounts for government spending, found that about 14 percent of Americans are in poverty. Nearly 40 percent of Americans between 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the poverty line over the course of their lives, said Rank, of the University of Washington in St. Louis.
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A separate study from Princeton University economist Angus Deaton found about 5.3 million Americans live on less than $4 a day, including government transfers.
The CEA report was issued about 90 days after Trump signed an executive order in April directing federal agencies to report back with recommendations on how to expand work requirements for low-income Americans who receive government aid.
Later that month, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson proposed tripling rent for the poorest households who receive federal housing subsidies and making it easier for local housing authorities to impose work requirements, among other sweeping changes.
The federal safety net, created when the War on Poverty began in 1964 under President Lyndon Johnson, has cut poverty in nearly half in the last 50 years, said Melissa Boteach, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
“The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress are now threatening to undermine that success at the same time that we have an economy that continues to work for the wealthy few at the expense of working families,” Boteach said.
The House in June narrowly passed a farm bill that includes new work requirements for the food stamp program used by 42 million Americans. But the provisions, which require most adults to work part-time or enroll in job training to receive benefits, stand little chance of passing the Senate in a compromise bill.