Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger
 

Poverty Enters the Conversation on the Campaign Trail

DeEtte_Peck_Oregon
Photo: DeEtte Peck uses her EBT card in Portland, Ore., to purchase food. (Brian Duss)

Poverty has been called this election season's invisible issue, but Wednesday's policy speech from Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan finally brought it into the spotlight.

In his address, given at Ohio’s Cleveland State University, the Wisconsin congressman said that "in this war on poverty, poverty is winning," and talked about public education, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), and other issues facing the 46 million Americans living below the poverty line.

While Ryan offered the first substantive mention of these issues on the campaign trail, his plans to fix them are controversial. He voiced support for converting social safety-net programs, including SNAP, from entitlements into block grants.

 

Federal entitlement programs are open-ended, meaning anyone who meets program requirements qualifies for benefits. When a program is block-granted, the federal government sets a hard budget limit for that program, and the divides the funds among the states. When demand for such programs is low, and states don’t spend their allotment, the extra funds become budget surplus. But in times of great need, states don't automatically receive an increase in funding to meet the increase in demand. Often, state governments are forced to slash benefits or cap enrollment—which means hungry and poor people in need may not receive vital assistance. 

 

In the Ohio speech, Ryan also referenced the 1996 welfare reform act (which he noted was passed by a Republican Congress and a Democratic president) that converted the entitlement program Aid to Families with Dependent Children into the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant. Ryan touted it as a success, citing the reduced number of people on welfare rolls. However, the reform is widely considered to have cut enrollment numbers through strict requirements that excluded many in need. As the number of TANF eligible families grew during the recession, the TANF block grant was unable to keep up with the need.

The important role of "friends, neighbors, and communities" in the fight against poverty was also emphasized by the vice-presidential candidate, who praised private charities, and the charitable acts of individuals in his address. "We’re still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty," he said.

Ryan’s recent speech reflects much of what he advocated for as chairman of the House Budget Committee. Long before the elections, Bread for the World has consistently opposed his proposals which would, in essence, egregiously cut programs vital to hungry and poor people. Bread’s position has not changed on this issue, even if Ryan is now advocating this as a vice-presidential candidate. Bread views hunger and poverty as nonpartisan issues, and the fight against them must be a bipartisan effort.  Efforts to move people out of poverty are welcome, but not at the expense of abandoning hungry and poor people. We do not support the block-granting of SNAP. Bread believes that while churches and charities play a role in combatting hunger and poverty, the government must not abdicate its responsibility to provide the basic social safety nets for poor working Americans.

“Hunger and poverty are not Republican or Democratic issues—they are moral issues affecting 47 million lives,” said Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. “Whoever is elected President must not balance the budget on the backs of hungry and poor people, nor shift the burden of lifting working Americans out of poverty to churches whose resources are already severely stretched. Churches and charities alone can’t meet all the needs of the most vulnerable in our society; government must be a partner in promoting the common good.”

Resources:

Circle of Protection presidential candidate statements on hunger and poverty

Fact sheet: "Who’s in Your Circle of Protection? How Rep. Paul Ryan’s Proposed Budget Impacts Hungry and Poor People"

Fact sheet: Block Grants 101

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