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Dan Lesser

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What Did Congress Do to Combat Poverty in 2011? Virtually Nothing

Posted: 02/27/2012 10:47 pm

The number of people in poverty has risen to unparalleled levels. According to the most recent Census Bureau data, there were 46.2 million Americans living in poverty in 2010, up from 43.6 million in 2009 (an increase of 2.6 million). In other words, more than one in six Americans were poor in 2010. This is the highest number since the Census Bureau began gathering data 52 years ago.

What has been the legislative response of the United States Congress to the increase in poverty? Virtually nothing. Only one bill that will reduce poverty -- legislation that will expand job opportunities and training for veterans -- passed the Senate and House and was signed into law by the president in 2011. This contrasts with 2010, when Congress passed and the president signed the landmark Affordable Care Act national health care reform.

The Shriver Center's 2011 Poverty Scorecard, released Friday, rates every member of Congress on how they voted on anti-poverty legislation. In consultation with national anti-poverty experts in 20 different fields, we identified the 18 House votes and 11 Senate votes that were the most significant votes to people in poverty in 2011. The 2011 Congressional Poverty Scorecard includes a thorough summary of each vote we scored that describes the measure that was voted on and why it was important in fighting poverty.

In past years, almost every vote important to people in poverty concerned a legislative initiative that would fight poverty. In contrast, most of the votes in 2011 that were of the greatest significance to people in poverty were votes against legislation that would have made poverty even worse.

Several votes would have eliminated programs that people in poverty rely on, including national health reform, legal services, school-based health centers, the McGovern-Dole international food program, and three important foreclosure relief and neighborhood stabilization programs.

Other votes were on sweeping proposals that affected a wide array of anti-poverty programs. These included proposals to dismantle the Medicare program, undermine the structure of Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (formerly Food Stamps), enshrine a balanced budget requirement and other ruinous fiscal principles in the U.S. Constitution, and slash funding for Pell Grants for higher education, employment and training programs, the WIC nutrition program for pregnant women and young children, and mental health and substance abuse program.

In addition to making poverty worse, some of the proposals would have exacerbated the 30-year trend of growing income inequality in the United States. In particular, the Ryan budget proposal approved in the House but rejected in the Senate would have made massive cuts in federal programs, most of which would have fallen on the poor, with all of the resulting savings used to provide additional tax breaks for the wealthy.

The Poverty Scorecard is a powerful tool that advocates, media, and citizens can use to evaluate the performance of their elected representatives. Each Senator and House member is assigned a letter grade, A+ through F-, based on their overall voting performance. Members who did not vote on enough bills were not graded. In total, we graded 431 of 435 Representatives and all 100 Senators. Readers are encouraged to examine their representatives' voting records, as well as other data available in the Poverty Scorecard, to learn more about what Congress did, and did not do, to combat poverty in 2011.

Most congressional scorecards rate members' performance on a narrow range of subjects. In contrast, the Poverty Scorecard takes into consideration a very broad range of issue areas, including asset building, budget and tax, consumer protection, education, employment and training, food and nutrition, foreign aid, health care, housing, immigrants, legal services, rural issues, unemployment insurance and veterans.

As in past years, we again found there is often no correlation between a state's poverty rate and the voting record of its members. Ten states, all in the South, with among the highest poverty rates in the country had delegations with among the worst records in voting to fight poverty (South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, Arizona, Georgia).

On the other hand, five states from around the country (New Mexico, West Virginia, Oregon, California and North Carolina) with above average poverty rates had delegations with strong records in voting to fight poverty.

Six states with the lowest poverty rates in the nation had among the best records in voting to fight poverty (Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Delaware Massachusetts, Vermont).