That’s right: Some anti-poverty programs aren’t working
Human Services Secretary Doug Racine has offered a discouraging assessment of what Vermont can do to address poverty, especially among young children. In an interview published last weekend, Racine described what he called “an evolution in my thinking.” He seems to have given up on reducing childhood poverty, and now says the best the state can do is to try to mitigate the effects.
The distinction Racine makes is an important one. Mitigating some of the hardships for people already in poverty is not the same as addressing the conditions that push people into poverty.
Despite Racine’s surrender, we need to do both. As a society, we have an obligation to care for those who are vulnerable and less fortunate. But our ultimate goal should be to keep people from falling into poverty in the first place. If we can do that, we can reduce the cost—in money and human misery—of having to mitigate poverty’s effects with food stamps, heating assistance, Medicaid, and other programs.
We should start by examining how we’re using resources now and to what ends. Which policies are aimed at keeping people out of poverty by addressing the underlying causes, which are mitigating its effects by addressing the symptoms, and which approaches are effective?
In the last five or six years, Vermont has seen a rise in the number of families qualifying for programs primarily designed for poverty-mitigation, such as Medicaid, 3SquaresVT, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and the Low-Income Heat Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Enrollment has increased largely because the recession put people out of work. So these programs are doing what they were intended to do, which is help people who aren’t earning enough to provide the basics for themselves and their families. These programs were never intended as a cure for poverty. But they are working.
On the other hand, we’ve adopted other policies that were supposed to provide a cure for poverty—namely, by creating good jobs. We’ve reduced taxes for employers on the promise they would invest the money to put people to work. In 2011 alone, the 5 percent of Vermonters with the highest incomes received nearly $200 million from the extension of federal tax cuts. But in spite of the massive Bush tax cuts, the so-called “job creators” have not delivered. Vermont has about the same number of private sector jobs as it had 13 years ago. The tax cuts were in effect before the start of the recession, but even then Vermont’s private sector job growth was minuscule: just 0.7 percent from January 2001 to its last peak in July 2007.
Last session, we heard from the governor and Agency of Human Services officials that Vermont’s efforts to reduce poverty weren’t working. They’re wrong if they’re talking about programs that help people weather periods of poverty. Those are working.
But they’re right if they’re talking about the failure of tax cuts to encourage job creation. It’s time to acknowledge that the anti-poverty efforts that haven’t worked are the tax incentives intended to create jobs that pay enough to keep people out of poverty altogether.
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