Ben Downing: Moving The Line

Jul 4, 2019

With a single regulatory change, the Trump administration wants to reduce poverty. Shockingly, that change is not an innovative effort to create jobs, lessen the burden of housing or healthcare costs, or improve education. It is an attempt to change how the federal government measures and defines poverty. People will not receive new benefits or opportunities, the federal government will just stop recognizing that they are poor. 

By changing the calculation of  the poverty line, the Trump administration would have justification to reduce spending on programs to aid the poor. Programs that use the federal poverty line to determine eligibility include, the national school lunch program, Head Start, Children’s Health Insurance and the Low Income Heat Energy Assistance Program. According to the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, the change would lead to 250,000 seniors and people with disabilities paying more for prescription drugs. 

It is hard to determine what is more jarring, the brazen nature of the proposal or the ideology driving it. Proponents of the proposal were the same who cheered the passage of massive, tax cuts for the wealthy. They now turn to social welfare programs - a miniscule portion of the budget after defense and healthcare spending - to solve the deficits exacerbated by those tax cuts. In 2019, a family of four making $26,000 lives above the federal poverty line. Imagine seeing that and thinking the definition of poverty was too generous, not too stingy. 

In 2016, 12.7% of the US population, or over 40 million people, lived in poverty. Massachusetts is not immune to impacts of poverty.  692,201 residents, more than the population of Boston, live in poverty. While the statewide poverty rate - 10.5% - is below the national average, the rate for Latinos (25.2%), African American (17.9%), Asian American (15.2%) and Children (13.2%), are all significantly higher than that. These disparities reflect the inequality in Massachusetts economy. 

It is easy to feel powerless in response to the daily onslaught of cruel policies from the current administration, but that is precisely the wrong response. We can and should turn our anger and frustration into action and we must demand more than statements of disappointment and concern from state leaders over these proposals. Not every state has the resources to fight back, but Massachusetts does and we must. 

Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

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