Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Legal Aid Opposes Alternate Measure of Poverty that Would Reduce Access to Safety Net Benefits

Yesterday, Legal Aid, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs submitted comments opposing a new approach to measuring poverty under consideration by the Trump Administration that could significantly reduce the number of families eligible for a wide range of safety net benefit programs. This “request for information,” which relates to how the federal poverty guidelines are updated each year, may appear quite technical at first glance. But adoption of the measure the Administration is contemplating could ultimately result in the denial of access to essential benefits like Medicaid and SNAP to millions of low-income individuals and families. As organizations dedicated to justice for low-income communities and communities of color, we oppose the adoption of a poverty measure that would artificially lower the poverty threshold and make countless vulnerable individuals and families ineligible for essential benefits.

There is a great deal of debate among researchers about the appropriate way to calculate the “poverty thresholds” that are used to set eligibility for countless means-tested programs. If instead of using the current methodology, the government considered the actual costs families pay to meet their basic needs, the poverty level would be much higher. A higher poverty level, in turn, would result in more families being classified as poor for purposes of obtaining essential safety net benefits. But instead of moving toward a poverty measure that would more accurately reflect the struggles of economically vulnerable families, the Administration is requesting information regarding inflation adjustments that—if implemented—would result in fewer people being considered poor, without any material improvement in their circumstances.

The Administration has explicitly stated that it is not seeking comments on the impact of changing the current consumer inflation measure on the poverty guidelines. But it is clear that the change contemplated would substantially reduce the number of low-income families and individuals who would be eligible for means-tested public benefits. There is also a larger context here. The Administration is requesting this information in the midst of its pursuit of countless other actions that negatively affect vulnerable communities. For example, among other things, it is simultaneously seeking to restrict access to essential safety net benefits, including proposing a budget that would decimate spending on low-income families; to impose onerous work requirements on beneficiaries of SNAP; and to impose draconian policies on restricting immigrant access to public benefits.

Given this apparent hostility to fundamental social safety net programs, the logical conclusion to draw from this technical request is that the Administration is using it to lay the groundwork for making it even harder for struggling individuals and families to access the programs they need. And, given existing racial disparities in income and financial security, the hardships caused by making fewer people income-eligible for social safety net programs would be disproportionately experienced by communities of color.

Our organizations will continue to oppose any such plan. Instead, we will advocate for sound policies that expand opportunity and that reduce the hardship and inequality experienced by our clients and client communities.

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