Minority Press

Senators Urged Not to Unravel Progress Made in War on Poverty

- Policy experts told Senate lawmakers on Wednesday that millions of seniors have been spared from abject poverty thanks to federal programs such as Social Security, Medicaid and food stamps. 

The testimony contrasted with the picture painted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) earlier this week, who produced a report that labeled the federal government’s five-decades long war on poverty a failure. 

The report was highly critical of many programs designed to help the poor and elderly saying they contribute to the "poverty trap."  Ryan and other House lawmakers have long proposed capping federal spending and turning Medicaid, food stamps and a host of other programs for the poor into state block grants.   

Appearing before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, Patricia Neuman, a senior vice president at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, stressed the importance of federal anti-poverty programs.

“Between 1966 and 2011, the share of seniors living in poverty fell from more than 28 percent to about 9 percent, with the steepest drop occurring in the decade immediately following the start of the Medicare program,” said Neuman.  “The introduction of Medicare, coupled with Social Security, played a key role in lifting seniors out of poverty.”

Neuman’s remarks were echoed by Joan Entmacher of the National Women’s Law Center, who credited food stamps, unemployment insurance and Meals on Wheels, along with Social Security, for dramatically reducing poverty among seniors.  

The two anti-poverty experts were joined at the hearing by Barbara Bovbjerg of the U.S. Government Accountability Office and Dixie Shaw from Catholic Charities Maine.

During questioning by committee chairman, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the panelists also offered lawmakers a number of suggestions aimed at maintaining and increasing successes made in the war on poverty.

“First, do no harm: protect programs that lift seniors out of poverty and alleviate hardship,” said Entmacher, who urged lawmakers to reject Social Security cuts and measures that shift Medicare cost to seniors.

Neuman went further, warning lawmakers: “If ongoing efforts to reduce the growth in Medicare and Medicaid spending shift health care costs directly onto seniors, the impact would be disproportionately felt among lower-income seniors, potentially unraveling some of the great progress that has been made in the War on Poverty in the past 50 years.” 

Nelson agreed. 

“I just hope today’s testimony will reverberate far beyond these committee walls,” said Nelson.  “I have always been taught it’s the responsibility of society to take care of its young and its old.”