Fighting poverty as federal aid dwindles

As reported by Keith Eddings, The Eagle-Tribune:

Leaders of several of the region’s anti-poverty programs on Tuesday predicted a dire future for the poor as President Trump and Congress begin cutting funding for the programs to pay for the tax cut they recently enacted that could reduce federal revenue by $1.5 trillion over a decade.

No one mentioned him by name, but Trump was the focus of attention at a conference on fighting poverty sponsored by a coalition of Massachusetts’ 23 community action councils, which were created by another president – Lyndon Johnson – along with hundreds of others nationwide a half century ago to implement federal anti-poverty programs at the local level.

“What happens in Washington doesn’t stay in Washington,” said Nancy Wagman, the author of a 75-page report she presented at the conference that details how Johnson’s War on Poverty cut the national poverty rate from 22 percent to 13 percent within a decade, then stalled in the mid-1970s as the federal minimum wage eroded against inflation and union membership sank.

But the greatest threat to the federal programs created by the War on Poverty – including Food Stamps, the Head Start day care program, the LIHEAP heating subsidies and the Earned Income Tax Credit – will come with the tax cut that Congress passed and Trump signed earlier this year, Wagman told the conference.

Wagman, a director at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank on economic policy issues, wrote the report for the coalition of community action councils, called the Massachusetts Association for Community Action.

The report, called “Obstacles on the Road to Opportunity: Finding a Way Forward,” estimates that anti-poverty programs have reduced the number of people in Massachusetts who live below the poverty level – $22,000 for a family of four – by more than half. That progress will be undone by the tax cut and Trump’s budget projections, which would cut spending for the nondefense discretionary funding that pays for the programs from $579 billion today to $306 billion in 2028, the report says.

The report tallies key economic indicators in 30 cities across the state, providing a grim account that suggests the work left to be done even as federal funding begins drying up. In every instance, Lawrence is at the bottom of the heap or close to it, the report found. Among them:

* One-third of Lawrence’s children live in poverty, exceeded only by Springfield, New Bedford and Holyoke.

* Up to one-third of Lawrence’s households spend more than half their income on rent, exceeded only by Springfield.

* 38 percent of Lawrence residents who filed federal tax returns in 2015 claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit – which reduces the taxes for the working poor – more than any other city in the state.

* 36 percent of Lawrence residents receive aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the successor to the Food Stamp program, exceeded only by Springfield.

Wegman’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College, that focused on solutions.

Jessica Andors, executive director of Lawrence Community Works, said the state and federal governments should increase aid to education and the city of Lawrence needs to hire more code enforcement officers to improve housing problems caused by overcrowding and absentee ownership. She said the $1.5 trillion federal tax cut should be repealed and the money invested in education and job training.

Gail Sokoloff, a director at the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and the Merrimack Valley, said automation and globalization have refocused the U.S. economy from the manufacturing industry to the service industry, which pays less. She said the hardship for low-income households is multiplied by the fact that many have poor financial management skills, which results in poor credit ratings that in turn cause them to pay an average of $230,000 more in interest and fees over their lifetimes.

Patricia Howson, director of the Bachelor Completion Program at Merrimack College, said the salaries paid by preschool programs needs to increase to attract more talented teachers who can better prepare children to learn when they reach elementary school.

“They’re not babysitters,” Howson said. “They’re early educators.”

Carol Schuster, vice president for grants and services at the Essex County Foundation, said a more regional approach to transportation would help the working poor get to better jobs.

Evelyn Friedman, executive director of the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, which co-hosted the event, said the minimum wage in Massachusetts should be raised from $11 to $15 an hour. A bill pending in the state legislature would do that. Friedman also called for wiping out the waiting list for day care in Massachusetts, which she said is now 15,000 children long.

There was some optimism.

“(Government) policy got us into this (mess),” Glenn said. “Maybe policy can get us out.”

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