Inequality in the United States is on the rise. While those at the top have recovered from the economic downturn, the rest of the country still suffers from high unemployment and stagnant wages. The War on Poverty is still necessary. It is essential that these programs continue to be funded in order to combat the gaps in wealth, income, education, and health. Recently, Representative Paul Ryan released a report “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later,” which takes aim at the federal government’s efforts to combat poverty in the United States. However, the report fails to accurately reflect the many accomplishments of the War on Poverty. In fact, several of the economists and social scientists whose work is cited in the report claim their research was misrepresented or misunderstood. The analysis in this report selectively cites data to further the argument that the programs that emerged from the War on Poverty are creating a so called “poverty trap” that perpetuates the cycle of poverty faced by far too many Americans. However, according to a recent study from Columbia University, our safety net reduced the number of Americans, particularly communities of color, living in poverty from 26 percent in 1967 to 15 percent in 2012. If the findings of this report are a reflection of what is to come of the House Budget Committee’s FY2015 budget, the effect on communities of color would be devastating.
While our safety net programs have proven successful, communities of color continue to face disproportionate poverty rates compared to their white counterparts. While in absolute numbers there are more whites in poverty than any other group, as of 2012, poverty rates for African American families were 27.2 percent, 25.6 percent for Latino families, and 11.7 percent for Asian American families, compared with a 9.7 poverty rate percent for white families. Further, high unemployment continues to plague communities of color, which reduces the likelihood of many of these families rising out of poverty. These disparities carry important economic and social consequences for our country, as communities of color are expected to comprise the majority of the U.S. population by 2042.
Many of the programs that this report deems inefficient or unnecessary are vital to low income families. Programs such as Head Start, the Child Care Development Fund, and Pell Grants are crucial to helping families rise out of poverty.
For nearly 50 years, Head Start has provided early childhood education, health, and parenting services to low-income children and families. Far too many students of color enter school without receiving the proper preparation to help them thrive, data shows that more than half of black children and 63 percent of Hispanic children ranging from 3 to 4 do not attend preschool. High quality preschool programs, such as Head Start, have tremendous impact on students; improving literacy skills and problem solving skills, which make a student’s likelihood of educational success greater. Since its inception, Head Start has served more than 30 million children and their families. Cutting this program could have devastating effects for children of color, nearly 40 percent of the families head start serves are Latino and 29 percent are black, many of these families rely on the health, nutrition, and social services that Head Start provides in addition to the education and cognitive development services provided by the program.
The Child Care Development Fund, which assists low-income families with child care costs, affords families the flexibility to work and/or pursue their education, creating a pathway to the middle class. Ryan’s report deems this program largely ineffective, yet studies suggest that these issues may be more related to the inconsistency of implementation than the program itself as many families quickly enter and exit the child care subsidy system. Instead of scaling back this program, as the report suggests, we must expand it as subsidy rates are not adequate at current levels. Like Head Start, this program is even more vital to communities of color as they suffer the ills of poverty disproportionately compared to whites.
Pell Grants are a vital tool for many students of color allowing them access to higher education that may have been unattainable without this assistance. Yet Ryan’s report incorrectly concludes that Pell Grants increase tuition and make it more difficult for low income students to access post-secondary education by forcing them to take on debt to pay for the higher tuition. Research shows that need based grant aid increases college enrollment among low- and moderate-income students and reduces their likelihood of dropping out. Pell Grants help more than 9 million students access higher education annually and has played a factor in increasing the amount of low income students entering college after high school from 31 percent to 54 between 1975 and 2011. Pell Grants are particularly important for students of color, helping more than 60 percent of African American undergraduates and half of Hispanic undergraduates to attend school.
“The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later” unfairly paints a bleak picture of many programs associated with the War on Poverty. It is surely a forecast of the many programs that the House Budget Committee will look to cut as it produces its FY 2015 Budget. Cuts to these important programs will be devastating to low income communities and communities of color and have the potential to further the already widespread inequality that our nation faces. The War on Poverty has not failed; our lagging economy has made these safety net programs even more important. Communities of color have been devastated by high unemployment and rising inequality, and are impoverished at alarmingly high rates, Pell Grants, Head Start, and the Child Care Development fund are effective tools to reduce these issues we must find ways to expand access to these programs not cut them.
Jamal Hagler is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050, a project by the Center for American Progress that develops new ideas for an increasingly diverse America, examines the implications of demographic shifts, and focuses on promoting policies to ensure a more equitable economy that works for all. You can follow Progress 2050 via Twitter at @Progress2050. The Center for American Progress originally published this article.