For an incredibly wealthy nation, the United States has remarkably high levels of poverty. More than 43 million people live below the official poverty line, and many more hover just above it, enduring financial insecurity.
Yet poverty is a topic that’s rarely broached during presidential campaigns. That changed for this current cycle, however, when Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton outlined an anti-poverty agenda on Wednesday in the pages of the New York Times.
“The best way to help families lift themselves out of poverty is to make it easier to find good-paying jobs,” the first plank claims. It focuses on government investment in infrastructure, manufacturing, technology, and clean energy as a way to create more jobs.
Another major plank is housing. “If we want to get serious about poverty, we also need a national commitment to create more affordable housing,” Clinton writes. Her solution is expanding Low Income Housing Tax Credits in high-cost areas, which support the building and rehabilitation of affordable housing. It doesn’t, however, offer assistance to families who can’t currently afford rent, which has hit a record high. Rental assistance currently reaches the lowest share of families with children in a decade, falling by 13 percent since 2004 thanks to years of budget cuts.
These investments would follow Rep. Jim Clyburn’s (D-SC) 10–20–30 plan, Clinton writes, which would send 10 percent of federal spending to places where 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for 30 years. She also pledged to focus investment on communities of color “held back for too long by barriers of systemic racism.”
Her poverty plan also includes some of the priorities she’s highlighted frequently throughout the campaign. She would raise the minimum wage; she’s previously pledged to bring it to $12 an hour. She would close the gender wage gap, something she had already promised to do by banning salary secrecy, increasing transparency, and enacting other policies.
She would also guarantee paid family leave and expand access to high-quality childcare, pointing out in particular that she would double spending on Early Head Start, which serves low-income families with children up to age three, and enact universal preschool for four-year-olds. Low-income families spend much larger shares of their income on childcare than more well off ones.
“With all of our country’s resources, no child should ever have to grow up in poverty,” she writes.
There was at least one notable policy that she completely left out, however: government assistance, particularly welfare, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Clinton’s op-ed does mention that public programs like food stamps and the Affordable Care Act help people “climb out of poverty.” But after her husband President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law in 1996, cash welfare has been eviscerated. About three-quarters of all families with children living in poverty used to get cash benefits; today it’s just a quarter. Hillary Clinton was first lady then, but by her own account helped get the bill passed and has supported it since.
Clinton notes that as poverty has fallen, “extreme poverty has increased.” But what she doesn’t mention is that the researchers who have documented this phenomenon — the number of families subsisting on $2 a day per family member has risen 159 percent since the mid-90s — found that it bears a close relationship to welfare reform. Those who were most impacted by the 1996 bill have seen the biggest increases in extreme poverty.
Clinton has noted some of welfare reform’s shortcomings and suggested some changes, such as lifting strict lifetime limits and making more room for pursuing higher education while receiving benefits. But no candidate in this cycle has put forward a plan to completely fix the program.