Congress Fails to Act on Poverty

Both parties talk about helping the poor, but as a new report illustrates, little has actually been done.

Sergio Torres takes part in a count of the homeless population in Miami in January. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Tackling income inequality and poverty, or at least talking about it, has become a priority for leaders in both parties, as politicians respond to the increasingly populist bent of the American electorate. Lawmakers have quite a long way to go, according to a new report that details the dismal record Congress amassed on issues related to poverty in 2014.

The annual scorecard released Wednesday by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law is, on the whole, unsurprising: Congress failed to make progress on much of anything last year, and poverty was no exception. The priorities of an organization named for George McGovern's running mate fall squarely in line with those of the Democratic Party. Accordingly, most Republicans in Congress received low grades while Democrats got high ones—pretty much the opposite of what you'd find in the annual scorecards of the conservative Club for Growth. Representative Paul Ryan, for example, received no credit for his efforts to develop conservative policies targeted to the poor; he scored an F based on votes he took in the House.

Yet even as it reinforces the partisan divide in Congress, the Shriver Center report also illustrates an important dynamic. Lawmakers representing states with the highest poverty rates in the country—mostly in the South—have the worst ratings, while delegations representing wealthier states in the Northeast have the best grades on the scorecard. Another way of looking at this is that Republicans predominantly represent poorer states, while Democrats represent wealthier states. "That seems like a real paradox to me," said Dan Lesser, who oversaw the scorecard for the Shriver Center.

The organization, which is officially non-partisan, graded lawmakers on their support or opposition for, among other things, the federal food stamp program, increasing the minimum wage, efforts to gut Obamacare (the center supports the law), and the House Republican budget, which Lesser called "a disaster for poor people." With Republicans now running both the House and Senate, the prospect for improvement over the next year is bleak—at least for efforts to bolster the social safety net. "I don't think it will change that much," Lesser said.

Still, there are policies that Republicans are supporting that would help the poor, he said. The chief example Lesser cited was the effort to reduce incarceration rates through criminal-justice reform, an effort that has brought together Democrats and Tea Party-aligned conservatives like Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah. He also mentioned an op-ed on "the overcriminalization" of America in the Chicago Tribune co-written by Charles Koch, the conservative mega-donor. "We agreed with basically everything he said," Lesser said. (My colleague Molly Ball explored the Koch brothers' interest in the issue earlier this month.) Republicans and Democrats have also both called for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, an anti-poverty measure that incentivizes work.

Conservatives would likely take issue with the Shriver Center report. Citing elevated poverty rates, they argue that federal programs aimed at helping the poor have largely failed to win the "war on poverty" that President Lyndon Johnson declared 51 years ago. And to the extent that they are developing new policies to counter the Democratic agenda, they mostly involve consolidating programs and shifting power and resources from the federal government to the states. Yet the reality is that it may not make much difference to struggling Americans, who are unlikely to see major action on poverty, or anything else, from a divided Washington anytime soon. This year's grades for Congress on most issues will probably look a lot like their grade from the Shriver Center—pretty low.