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How Far Have We Really Come in the War on Poverty?

January 11, 2014

By Meghan Maury Federal Policy Counsel, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

The 24th Amendment, which prohibits the use of poll taxes in national elections, was finally passed. Medgar Evers’ murderer walked free. The Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. Muhammad Ali was crowned the heavyweight champion of the world. The Vietnam war continued, unabated.  Malcolm X gave his historic “Ballot or the Bullet” speech in Detroit. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. The bodies of three murdered civil rights workers were found in Mississippi. Che Guevara addressed the U.N. General Assembly.

LBJ declared a war on poverty.

Fifty years later, the war rages on. Measuring success in the War on Poverty is difficult. Mostly, that’s because we don’t really know how to define success. The Federal government publishes a yearly standard “poverty line,” which is basically set by multiplying a monthly food supply cost by three.  The line is somewhat arbitrary, since it doesn’t reflect cost of living in different parts of the U.S.  More importantly, the line represents an income level below which people are absolutely unable to live, not one above which people are doing just fine.  Still, it gives us something to use as a measure of comparison. By that measure, we’re doing a bit better, though poverty rates as a percentage of the population have been on the rise again in the last several years. Disturbingly, “a bit better” still means there are 46 million people living in poverty.

The federal poverty line does not, however, take into account some of the social safety net programs implemented or strengthened since LBJ made his declaration of war. The statistics exclude some types of income, including SNAP benefits (aka “food stamps”) and tax credits like the EITC.  The number of people affected by these programs is significant:

  • About 47 million people receive SNAP benefits; those benefits lift about 5 million people above the poverty line.
  • About 27 million people receive the EITC; that credit lifts about 10 million people out of poverty.
  • Social security benefits are included in the federal poverty measure, but their impact should not be ignored: 90% of people over 65 receive SSA; without it, there would be 22 million more people living in poverty.

So we have made some progress, by these measures. By other measures, we’re not faring so well. Income inequality has soared:

  • In the mid-sixties, the average CEO made about 20 times as much as the average worker (20:1).  Today, the average worker makes about 200 times as much as the average worker (200:1).
  • In the mid-sixties, the top 1% of earners took home about 10% of the nation’s income.  Now they take home almost 25%.
  • The share of income held by the top 20% of earners has steadily increased, while that held by the bottom 20% has steadily decreased.  Currently, the top 20% of earners take home over 50% of the nation’s income; the bottom 20% take home 3%.
  • While increasing their share of the nation’s wealth, those in the top tax bracket have seen their tax rates drop dramatically: In 1964, the top tax bracket paid a tax rate of 77%.  Today, the top rate is 35%.

For the lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, the numbers are even worse:

  • Lesbian and bisexual women, who are roughly half of the 9 million LGB people in the United States, are significantly more likely to be living in poverty than heterosexual women (24% of lesbian and bisexual women live in poverty).
  • About 1.6 million youth experience homelessness every year.  20-40% of homeless youth self-identify as LGBTQ.
  • Transgender people are four times more likely to have a household income under $10,000 and twice as likely to be unemployed as the rest of the U.S. population
  • Senior lesbian couples experience poverty rates twice that of senior heterosexual couples.

The War on Poverty, then, hasn’t done a very good job of protecting our community. Unfortunately, like in any war, there are no simple solutions. Still, the following policies would go far to remedy the situation:

  • Increase the amount and reach of existing social safety net programs like the EITC, Social Security, and SNAP benefits.  At the very least, Congress should avoid any further cuts to these programs.
  • Extend unemployment insurance benefits.  Congress should be voting on extending long-term unemployment benefits soon.
  • Increase the minimum wage, moving toward a living wage.
  • Reduce inequality through the tax rate by moving back toward top tax rates of the 70’s and 80’s.
  • Pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) through the House of Representatives.  Discrimination at work contributes to LGBT poverty.
  • Reauthorize the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA), which provides federal funding for youth experiencing homelessness.
  • Make other federal legislation LGBT-inclusive, including health-care legislation and the Older Americans Act (OOA).
  • Make all homeless shelters that receive federal funding trans-inclusive.

Of course, this list is just a start. If we’re going to create economic security for our community and our nation, we’re going to have to take a hard look at how all of our laws and regulations reverberate in ways that contribute to inequality.

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