Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, more than 45 million Americans live in poverty. A startling number of Americans live in deep poverty, defined as living on less than $10,000 per year for a family of three. What’s worse, some of the very programs that are supposed to pull children and their families out of poverty are failing.
These troubling trends are why Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan recently unveiled a broad anti-poverty agenda that proposes numerous changes to the federal programs that support low-income Americans. While I don’t always agree with Ryan, I think his focus on poverty is exactly right, and it’s time we start talking about it in Congress.
As governor, I administered many of the programs that support low-income Mainers, and I presided over the state’s implementation of the 1996 federal welfare reform law, which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Like much of the country, Maine benefited from the strong economy and low unemployment of the 1990s. Between 1996 and 2002, the state’s TANF caseload was nearly cut in half.
While TANF was an improvement over the old welfare system, we quickly found that the program lacked key features that promote long-term independence, such as investments in education and job training. That’s why Maine led the country in creating the Parents as Scholars program, which was enacted with the broad bipartisan support of the state Legislature in 1997. Parents as Scholars has since sent thousands of low-income Mainers to college, and studies have shown that the program has had a significant impact on participants, including increased wages and a reduced likelihood of returning to welfare in the future.
Maine created Parents as Scholars despite federal restrictions that make it difficult for states to invest in education. It’s time Washington takes a cue from Maine. That’s why on Thursday I am introducing the EMPOWER Act, which would allow states such as Maine to receive credit for connecting welfare recipients with the education and training that will help them permanently transition off of public assistance. My bill improves the design of the federal program by streamlining its requirements and ensuring that states invest TANF dollars in the program’s core purposes, such as getting people back to work. Importantly, my bill asks states to focus on results — including whether people who leave the program find jobs and whether fewer children are poor and hungry.
But that is only one part of this puzzle. Rising child care costs also make it difficult for low-income families to find and keep jobs. Congress tried to address this challenge by creating the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which helps families afford day care, but the credit only assists families who owe taxes, leaving behind many low-income working parents who make so little that they owe no income tax. That’s why in the coming weeks I also will introduce the ACE Act, which will make the credit refundable and index parts of it to inflation to keep pace with rising child care costs. By lowering these costs for low-income families, we can reduce their reliance on publicly-funded programs and increase their contribution to the economy.
Finally, I also plan to introduce the LADDER Act, a bill that would better coordinate federal job training programs for people struggling to find work, including individuals with disabilities, welfare recipients and veterans. Currently, people who want to work but need more training and support are divided among multiple agencies — the Veterans Administration helps veterans, the Social Security Administration supports people with long-term disabilities, and the Department of Labor serves the unemployed. I believe the federal government can reduce inefficiencies and produce better results if it coordinates federal programs through an interagency effort that focuses on what actually works to get people back on their feet. In the end, getting more adults back in the workforce will lead to better outcomes for their kids.
Last fall, I saw these challenges firsthand when I visited an elementary school in western Maine. The teachers there told me that the biggest problems their students faced weren’t in the classroom — but at home. They told me that too many kids come to school hungry, lack winter coats, experience family violence, and have caretakers who struggle with substance abuse. With Maine experiencing a 50 percent increase in the rate of children living in deep poverty since 2010, these trends are becoming all too common.
Speaker Ryan has said the war on poverty has ended in a stalemate, and that it’s time for a better way. I agree. Maine — and the rest of the country — cannot afford to stand by idly as more of our children miss out on their chance to pursue the American dream.
Sen. Angus King, an independent, represents Maine in the U.S. Senate.