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The Next Phase in the War on Poverty

It’s been over 50 years since America’s War on Poverty began. The safety net programs that began then, and have been launched in the years since, continue to serve hundreds of thousands of families in New York City alone. In fact, years of academic research and the recent creation of the supplemental poverty measure demonstrate that safety net programs have made significant progress in alleviating poverty experienced by children, families and seniors.

Just think about where we would be as a nation without Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the school meals program, child care subsidies, SNAP food stamps, or the Earned Income Tax Credit, to name a few. In fact, these programs have become even more essential over the past two decades as fewer and fewer households benefit from cash assistance commonly referred to as “welfare.”

In New York City alone, more than a quarter of households with children (nearly 250,000) receive SNAP benefits; more than half of all children (900,000) receive health insurance through Medicaid or the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP); more than 102,000 children benefit from child care subsidies; and 75 percent of all public school children citywide are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, with eligibility as high as 90 percent in some districts. In fact, the need to increase food security and reduce stigma was so great that the city’s Department of Education made lunch universally free this school year. In terms of tax relief, nearly a million NYC households benefit from either the state or city earned income tax credits and 230,000 benefit from the state and local child care tax credits.

As we think about the broad reach of these essential programs in New York City, we shudder when acknowledging that they are in fact targeted for reductions by the current federal administration. These programs not only benefit children and families but bring billions of dollars in resources into the city’s economy.

Just this week, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have advanced a proposal that allows states to apply a work requirement on Medicaid which will threaten health care coverage for the poor, disabled, as well as those struggling with chronic disease. More than 100 days have passed since Congress failed to renew funding for CHIP, leaving health care coverage for 9 million children across the country at risk. The recently passed federal tax bill not only makes it harder for households headed by immigrants to claim the child care tax credit, but also raises taxes on all low income households overtime. And if the President’s upcoming budget mirrors his first, we should anticipate reductions to cash assistance programs and stricter requirements on food stamps, among other harmful proposals.

In this climate, and acknowledging how far we’ve come since the War on Poverty was initiated, it’s clear we need to advocate aggressively against proposals that would decimate vital programs for the poor – food stamps, cash assistance, the women infants and children’s (WIC) program, child care subsidies, among others. We also must advocate forcefully for our state, local and even federal leaders to go further to strengthen the programs at the foundation of the safety net and advance initiatives that help lift wages, ensure that household heads/caregivers remain connected to the workforce, and that all children and their parents are upwardly mobile.

Among the top New York State and New York City priorities that we believe deserve serious consideration:

  • Deepening the state and city earned income tax credits to provide more relief to low income working families;
  • Expanding the city’s child care tax credit to ensure that families with young children who earn more than $30,000 are eligible, and ensuring that the state’s child and dependent care credit provides tax relief for households with children under age four;
  • Building on the success of universal prekindergarten by increasing investments in infant and toddler child care and making a commitment to salary parity across the early education workforce;
  • Making afterschool with a summer component universal for all public school children;
  • Making certain that all labor market sectors benefit from recent minimum wage increases (including the nonprofit sector supported through government contracts);
  • Ensuring that recent enactment of state paid family leave and local paid sick leave benefits reach all sectors, as well, and leave no workers behind;
  • Reducing the price of MetroCard’s for low income New Yorkers and supporting the creation of transportation alternatives for hard to reach communities across the city and state;
  • Publicly promoting new opportunities for state tax filers to connect to child savings accounts at tax time, and expanding local efforts to ensure that all kindergarteners have the option to open 529 college savings accounts.

And lastly, at the national level we must not only aggressively fight against proposals that would decimate the social safety net but must encourage congressional leaders to join the 21st century by advancing a universal child allowance, emulating the effective experience of nearly every other industrialized country in the western hemisphere.

These proposals are not far-fetched or unattainable, they are necessary. When President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the war on poverty in his 1964 state of the union address, he said, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”

There is no more urgent call to action – we must build on the foundation that was laid more than five decades ago, and push ourselves, our city, state and nation to go further in transforming the lives of children, families and communities for the better.

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