The Center's work on 'Poverty and Income' Issues

The Center analyzes major economic developments affecting low- and moderate-income Americans, including trends in poverty, income inequality, and the working poor. In addition, we analyze the asset rules in various public benefit programs that can discourage low-income people from building modest savings and highlight potential reforms.


Why the Ryan Plan Should Worry Those Who Are Concerned About the Affordable Housing Crisis, Part 1

July 31, 2014 at 12:33 pm

A centerpiece of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s poverty plan is the proposal to consolidate 11 safety net programs — including four housing assistance programs — into a single, flexible block grant to states.  Among its downsides, this proposal threatens to lead to reductions in funding that provides housing assistance to millions of low-income families and individuals.

My colleagues have already set out some of the reasons to be concerned by Chairman Ryan’s proposal:

  • Block grants have proven to be easy targets for funding cuts, in part because their inherent flexibility makes it difficult to demonstrate how cuts would affect needy families and communities.
  • Total funding to assist low-income families — from federal, state, and local sources combined — likely would also decline, because broad block grants afford states opportunities to use block grant funds to replace state and local funds now going for similar services.

Because housing assistance and SNAP make up more than 80 percent of Ryan’s Opportunity Grant, any cuts in block grant funding would very likely reduce families’ access to these programs, as my colleague LaDonna Pavetti has explained.

The history of housing and community development program funding shows the risk of funding cuts that rental assistance programs face under Ryan’s plan.  Funding for flexible block grant programs such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), HOME (which helps states and localities develop and preserve affordable homes for owners and renters), and the Native American Housing Block Grant has fallen sharply over time.  Meanwhile, programs that provide more narrowly prescribed forms of assistance to low-income families and that Congress funds separately each year — a category that includes housing vouchers, rural rental assistance, Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance, and Public Housing, the four rental assistance programs that Ryan’s proposal targets — have generally avoided reductions (sequestration in 2013 notwithstanding). (See chart.)

The reasons are easy to understand.  For example, HUD provides Congress every year with precise estimates of the cost of renewing the Housing Choice Vouchers that assist more than 2 million low-income families.  If Congress fails to provide sufficient funding to renew the vouchers, some of those families will lose assistance (and possibly their homes).  In contrast, policymakers can justify cutting a block grant by claiming that local agencies can avoid cutting direct assistance to families by using their flexibility to shift funds from other activities.

Cuts in rental assistance would fall mainly on low-income people who are elderly or have disabilities and working-poor families with children.  More than 80 percent of households with rental assistance in 2010 were elderly, had a disability, worked, or had recently worked.  (2010 is the most recent year for which these data are available to us.)

Rising rents and stagnant incomes have left increasingly more low-income Americans unable to afford decent, stable housing without cutting back on other basic needs.  Already fewer than one in four eligible low-income families receive rental assistance due to funding limitations, and waiting lists are long.  The cuts that would likely result from the Ryan plan would make this shortfall more severe and thus leave more families struggling to pay the rent and keep their homes.

IMF and OECD Call for Stronger EITC and Minimum Wage

July 30, 2014 at 11:42 am

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which have previously recommended expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and raising the federal minimum wage, both issued recent reports underscoring that these measures should be viewed as complements, not competing alternatives.

The reminder that a higher minimum wage can make a stronger EITC more effective at reducing poverty and encouraging work is especially timely given House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new poverty plan.  Ryan commendably recommended expanding the EITC for childless workers and non-custodial parents, but presented this as an alternative to a minimum wage increase.

The IMF report recommends:

An expansion of the EITC (including making permanent the various extensions that are due to expire in 2017) would also raise living standards for the very poor.  Finally, given its current low level, the minimum wage should be increased.  This would help raise incomes for millions of working poor and would have strong complementarities with the suggested improvements in the EITC, working in tandem to ensure a meaningful increase in after-tax earnings for the nation’s poorest households.

The OECD working paper reiterates the OECD’s previous finding that “the EITC is a large and successful antipoverty program” and recommends strengthening the EITC for childless workers and non-custodial adults, along with raising the minimum wage.  Because the EITC is a proven work incentive, it expands the number of people seeking jobs in the low-wage sector, which can put some downward pressure on the wages that employers offer potential workers — meaning that some EITC dollars would effectively flow to employers, not workers.  A higher minimum wage helps offset that effect.  As the OECD explains:

Setting the federal minimum wage at a reasonable level can also help to make the EITC more effective at raising incomes. Although hard to quantify, employers could be capturing part of the credit by paying lower wages than they would in the absence of the EITC (OECD, 2009). Increasing the federal minimum wage would counteract this dead-weight loss by supporting wage levels.

For policymakers of either party striving to expand opportunity and raise the living standards of working-poor families, the policy roadmap is clear:  extend the recent improvements in the EITC and Child Tax Credit, expand the EITC for childless workers, and raise the minimum wage.

What Difference Would Ryan’s EITC Expansion Make for Childless Workers?

July 29, 2014 at 4:07 pm

We’ve explained that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless adults, including non-custodial parents, would encourage work and reduce poverty.  This interactive chart allows you to compare the EITC that childless workers at different income levels would earn under current law and under the Ryan expansion, which mirrors a proposal from President Obama.

For example, the EITC for single childless worker making poverty-level wages (we estimate $12,566 in 2015) would jump from about $170 under current law to about $840 in 2015 under the Ryan and Obama proposals.

The Ryan and Obama plans would, starting in 2015: lower the EITC’s eligibility age for workers not raising minor children from 25 to 21, double the maximum credit to about $1,000, and phase in the credit more quickly as a worker’s income rises.  (Unlike Chairman Ryan, President Obama would also allow workers aged 65 and 66 to claim the credit.)

The big difference between the Ryan and Obama plans, as we’ve noted, is the proposed “offsets” to pay for them (not reflected in the interactive above).  Several of Ryan’s offsets would hit low-income and other vulnerable families, while the President would pay for hisEITC expansion by closing tax loopholes for wealthy taxpayers.

Nevertheless, it’s encouraging that leading members of both parties recognize the need to do more for the lone group that the federal tax system taxes into poverty.

Ryan Roundup: What You Need to Know About Chairman Ryan’s Poverty Proposal

July 25, 2014 at 4:42 pm

We’ve compiled CBPP’s analyses and blog posts on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new poverty proposal.  We’ll update this roundup as we issue additional analyses.

  • Blog Post: Why the Ryan Plan Should Worry Those Who Are Concerned About the Affordable Housing Crisis, Part 1
    July 31, 2014
    A centerpiece of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s poverty plan is the proposal to consolidate 11 safety net programs — including four housing assistance programs — into a single, flexible block grant to states.  Among its downsides, this proposal threatens to lead to reductions in funding that provides housing assistance to millions of low-income families and individuals.
  • Blog Post: What Difference Would Ryan’s EITC Expansion Make for Childless Workers?
    July 29, 2014
    We’ve explained that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless adults, including non-custodial parents, would encourage work and reduce poverty.  Our interactive chart allows you to compare the EITC that childless workers at different income levels would earn under current law and under the Ryan expansion, which mirrors a proposal from President Obama.
  • Blog Post: Ryan’s “Opportunity Grant” Would Likely Force Cuts in Food and Housing Assistance
    July 29, 2014
    House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan maintains that consolidating 11 safety-net and related programs into a single “Opportunity Grant” would give states the flexibility to provide specialized services to low-income people.  But providing these additional services would require cutting assistance funded through the Opportunity Grant to other needy people.  And because SNAP (formerly food stamps) and housing assistance together make up more than 80 percent of the Opportunity Grant, the cuts would almost certainly reduce families’ access to these programs, which are effective at reducing poverty — particularly deep poverty.
  • Blog Post: History Suggests Ryan Block Grant Would Be Susceptible to Cuts
    July 28, 2014
    Ryan says that the block grant would maintain the same overall funding as the current programs.  But even if one thought that current-law funding levels were adequate, they likely wouldn’t be sustained over time under the Ryan proposal:  history shows that block grants that consolidate a number of programs or may be used for a wide array of purposes typically shrink — often very substantially — over time.
  • Blog Post:  Why Ryan’s Proposed Work Requirements Are Cause for Concern
    July 25, 2014
    House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new poverty plan predictably showcases the 1996 welfare law, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), as a model for reforming other safety net programs.  For example, states would have to impose work requirements on all recipients of assistance funded through the “Opportunity Grant” — the block grant that would replace 11 safety net and related programs — who are not classified as unable to work.  We have four key concerns about this proposal.
  • Blog Post:  Dean: SNAP Is a Successful, Influential Component of the Safety Net
    July 25, 2014
    SNAP is not only one of the most efficient and effective safety net programs, but it’s also helping improve other programs, CBPP’s Stacy Dean told a House Agriculture subcommittee.
  • Commentary:  Ryan “Opportunity Grant” Proposal Would Likely Increase Poverty and Shrink Resources for Poverty Programs Over Time
    July 24, 2014
    A centerpiece of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new poverty plan would consolidate 11 safety-net and related programs — from food stamps to housing vouchers, child care, and the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) — into a single block grant to states.  This new “Opportunity Grant” would operate initially in an unspecified number of states.  While some other elements of the Ryan poverty plan deserve serious consideration, such as those relating to the Earned Income Tax Credit and criminal justice reform, his “Opportunity Grant” would likely increase poverty and hardship, and is therefore ill-advised, for several reasons.
  • Blog Post:  Ryan Adds Momentum to Expanding EITC for Childless Workers
    July 24, 2014
    House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan highlighted the Earned Income Tax Credit as one of the most effective anti-poverty programs and joined growing bipartisan calls to expand it for childless adults (including non-custodial parents), the lone group that the federal tax system taxes into poverty.  We applaud this step, though we encourage him to reconsider some of his proposals to offset the cost — which would hit vulnerable families — and his opposition to a much-needed increase in the minimum wage.
  • Blog Post:  Ryan’s Rhetoric Doesn’t Match His Proposal’s Reality
    July 24, 2014
    House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan left the impression that his proposed Opportunity Grant will allow low-income individuals to get income assistance as well as help they may need to go to school, get off drugs, and succeed in the workplace.  That picture, however, doesn’t reflect the reality of his proposal.

We also issued several pieces ahead of Chairman Ryan’s announcement of his proposal:

  • Analysis:  Deep Poverty Among Children Worsened in Welfare Law’s First Decade
    July 23, 2014
    Since the mid-1990s, when policymakers made major changes in the public assistance system, the proportion of children living in poverty has declined, but the harshest extremes of child poverty have increased.  After correcting for the well-known underreporting of safety net benefits in the Census data, we estimate that the share of children in deep poverty — with family income below half of the poverty line — rose from 2.1 percent to 3.0 percent between 1995 and 2005.  The number of children in deep poverty climbed from 1.5 million to 2.2 million.Blog Post:  Fewer Poor Children Under Welfare Law, But More Very Poor Children
  • Blog Post: CLASP: State Experiences Show Safety Net Programs Don’t Need Massive Overhaul to Work Better
    July 23, 2014
    Olivia Golden of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) took a closer look at the experiences of six states to debunk common myths about the delivery of safety net programs. . . . Golden explained that the experiences of the six states involved in the Work Support Strategies (WSS) initiative — a project coordinated by CBPP, CLASP, and the Urban Institute that is designing, testing, and implementing more effective, streamlined, and integrated approaches to delivering key supports for low-income working families — offer lessons for how to improve safety net programs.
  • Blog Post:  Why the 1996 Welfare Law Is Not a Model for Other Safety Net Programs
    July 22, 2014
    House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s upcoming poverty plan will likely showcase the 1996 welfare law, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — a block grant with fixed federal funding but broad state flexibility — as a model for reforming other safety net programs.  A careful examination of the record, however, indicates that the 1996 law’s results were mixed and that if the goal is to reduce poverty, especially among the most disadvantaged families and children, there are serious downsides to embracing the 1996 law as a model.
  • Commentary:  Policymakers Often Overstate Marginal Tax Rates — and Understate Trade-Offs In Reducing Them
    July 22, 2014
    Some Washington policymakers are increasingly focused on whether government benefits for low- and moderate-income people create disincentives to work — in particular, when these benefits phase down as the earnings of beneficiaries rise.That phase-down rate is often called the “marginal tax rate” because it resembles a tax — benefits fall as earnings rise.  The relationship between marginal tax rates and disincentives to work is an important issue, one worthy of serious debate.  Some policymakers, however, often overstate the size of marginal tax rates and their impacts on work, and understate the trade-offs in trying to lower these rates.Blog Post:  Understanding Marginal Tax Rates and Government Benefits

Why Ryan’s Proposed Work Requirements Are Cause for Concern

July 25, 2014 at 3:30 pm

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new poverty plan predictably showcases the 1996 welfare law, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), as a model for reforming other safety net programs.  For example, states would have to impose work requirements on all recipients of assistance funded through the “Opportunity Grant” — the block grant that would replace 11 safety net and related programs — who are not classified as unable to work.  There are four key concerns about this proposal:

  1. It would divert funds that help families put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads to pay for programs that, at best, produce modest employment increases.  Even the most successful welfare employment programs usually don’t enable more than half of participants to get steady jobs, and the success rate for typical welfare employment programs is much lower than that.  In contrast, SNAP (food stamps) and housing assistance lift millions of people out of poverty.  As I explained yesterday, the way the Ryan plan would provide more resources to impose and monitor work requirements would largely be by cutting food and housing assistance that now goes directly to needy individuals and families.  If that assistance is taken away, poverty will rise and the long-term benefits of SNAP and housing assistance will be diminished.
  2. It ignores the realities of today’s labor market.  Low-skilled individuals looking for work today facing a daunting reality:  the economy still isn’t operating on all cylinders, and employers are increasingly looking for skills that these individuals generally don’t have.  Imposing work requirements won’t itself create new job opportunities for people who are struggling to find work.  In addition, millions of Americans work hard for little pay — 28 percent of workers in 2012 had wages too low to support a family of four at the poverty line through full-time work, the Economic Policy Institute has found.   Government assistance that helps working-poor families meet basic needs shouldn’t be diverted to pay for work programs that will be of little value to them.  Yet that’s likely what would occur under the Opportunity Grant proposal.
  3. It may reinforce the mistaken belief that most public benefit recipients don’t work.  More than half of SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult work while receiving SNAP — and more than 80 percent work in the year before or after receiving SNAP.  Similarly, nearly three-quarters of non-elderly, non-disabled households receiving one of the major forms of rental assistance work (or recently worked) or participate in a program through which they likely face a work requirement.
  4. States haven’t shown a commitment to investing in work programs.  Although caseloads in most states’ cash assistance programs for poor families with children fell sharply in the late 1990s, states generally haven’t used much of the freed-up resources to improve the job prospects of poor parents who have barriers to employment.  Only 8 percent of state and federal dollars under TANF directly supports employment activities for cash assistance recipients.  Even when you count funds that support families with jobs, like child care assistance and the refundable part of state earned income tax credits, states spend only one-third of their federal and state TANF dollars to promote and support work.