(RNN) - The constantly changing political climate of the United States has been in conflict with American policies to combat poverty since the 1960s. The most recent confrontation between policy and the poor has come with forced budget cuts of sequestration, October's government shutdown and the reduction in food stamp benefits.
There are nearly 47 million impoverished Americans, or more than 14 percent of the entire population, according to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data.
Nov. 1 marked the beginning of a 5 percent reduction of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which serves those with food insecurity, including the elderly, children and even veterans. One in 7 Americans turn to SNAP for help in putting food on the table.
But well before these recent cuts thousands of government workers, many in the defense and aviation industries, experienced layoffs and furloughs because of sequestration.
"Sequestration's reckless across-the-board cuts come at the worst time for struggling families," said Erik Stegman, manager of the Half in Ten Campaign with the Center for American Progress Action Fund. "Congress began this irresponsible trend of deficit reduction on the back of low-income Americans at the time they needed help the most."
The partial government shutdown and the prospect in 2014 of the American government defaulting on its debt, is triggering a dramatic economic downturn that could cause the poverty level to reach numbers unseen since the 1960s.
Political factors change the lives of the working poor, who struggle daily, and the effects of sequestration on the poor have barely been part of the national dialogue. The $85 billion in budget cuts can have drastic effects on federal aid for individual citizens as well as local and national nonprofit organizations that help impoverished Americans.
"These cuts [sequestration] were originally designed to be so devastating that Congress would never allow it to happen," Stegman said. "Unfortunately, Congress seems comfortable letting these devastating cuts become a permanent reality for families who are still struggling in a bad economy."
The forced budget cuts of sequestration that began on March 1, 2013 are the result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which scheduled cuts pushed by Republicans to control rising U.S. debt.
Many nonprofit organizations and charities, like the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which provides aid to the impoverished, are among those that will suffer the consequences of sequestration. According to the New York Times, the federal government operates 122 different anti-poverty programs.
"After years of getting worse, the poverty rate finally stabilized, but we still have a lot of work to do," Stegman said. "Although the U.S. economy is beginning to grow again, too many Americans are still living in a recession and can't find a job that can support their families."
The forced budget cuts were made to protect programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, Children's Health Insurance Program, food stamps, the Veteran's Administration and military personnel. However, many programs associated with those will be affected in the long term, such as Medicare, SNAP and many others.
The domestic initiatives hurt by the forced budget cuts affect many programs that combat U.S. poverty, according to Danny Were of the Office of Management and Budget.
"The economy is still failing far too many American families, and we certainly can't make progress cutting poverty in an environment like this when Congress is recklessly cutting the only supports these families have to provide basics like childcare, housing and education," Stegman said.
Sequestration not only changed these programs for those who need aid, it also coincided with national unemployment, which is currently 7.2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data's numbers from September 2013.
More than 1.9 million people receiving unemployment benefits have seen a nearly 15 percent cut, amounting to a loss of $200-$300 annually in unemployment payments depending on which state they live in, according to The National Journal. Job training programs, such as Job Corps, will lose $83 million in funds while its job placement program, Employment Services, will lose $37 million, a cut of 26 percent since sequestration began.
Education programs, including the popular Head Start program and Title I, the two largest federally funded programs in the U.S. by the Department of Education, would take cuts of $400 million and $725 million, respectively.
"Until we rebuild an economy where all Americans have equal access and opportunity to jobs that can support their families, we shouldn't be slashing budgets, we should be investing in our future," Stegman said.
Together, sequestration and poverty are contributing to the shrinking American middle class.
"For these Americans, they rely on these important programs until our economy provides them with opportunities again," Stegman said. "Slashing these programs now will severely threaten our ability to reduce poverty moving forward."
Americans who depend on SNAP are at risk of sinking further into poverty. The reduction of benefits means that the 47 million Americans, including 22 million children and 9 million elderly persons, will have $36 a month less to feed themselves, according to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities. The current cuts are $133 a month, totaling $5 billion.
House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-VA and a key leader of the SNAP cuts, told the Washington Post on Sept. 19 that the cuts are "necessary" to stop certain citizens "that choose to abuse the system."
On Sept. 19, when the House of Representatives voted to cut SNAP, Cantor gave a speech on the House floor and explained why he believed these cuts will bring self-reliance and empower the impoverished to seek employment.
"The reforms made by this bill [the farm bill] will put people on the path to self-sufficiency and independence," Cantor said. "The truth is anyone subjected to the work requirements under this bill, who are able-bodied under 50, will not be denied benefits if only they are willing to sign up for the opportunity for work. There are workfare programs; there are options under the bill for community service. This bill is a bill that points to the dignity of a job – to help people when they need it most with what they want most, which is a job."
The Obama administration and Congress have since had unsuccessful negotiations on changing or preventing these cuts, which total a proposed $39 billion by the House of Representatives and $4 billion in proposed cuts in a Senate version of the farm bill. Congress has the power to stop the current food stamp cuts.
Furthermore, October's partial government shutdown continued spending cuts at sequestration levels. Because the government did not pass a comprehensive budget and delayed it until February 2014, the budget cuts are maintained, with funding levels for social programs remaining the same.
There are a number of opinions on how best to reduce the number of Americans living in poverty. Aside from revamping Orshanky's poverty threshold formula from the early 1960s, the Center for American Progress Task Force on Poverty in 2007 issued a report that listed 12 recommendations.
Of those recommendations, raising minimum wage significantly in the next 10 years, unionization, free child care assistance to low-income families and an introduction to early childhood education, housing vouchers, work and school programs for high school students, an expansion of Pell Grant for collegiate and a modification of means-tested benefit programs.
"Millions more struggle each month to pay for basic necessities, or run out of savings when they lose their jobs or face health emergencies. Poverty imposes enormous costs on society," the Center for American Poverty said in a 2007 report.
The Center's purpose is for politicians, U.S. citizens and others to create a conscious effort in joining together to make poverty a national issue.
"At the same time, we need not and should not wait for the federal government to act. In communities across the nation, policymakers, business leaders, people of faith, and concerned citizens can come together to ask what they can do within their community and how they can join with others to seek a national commitment to cut poverty in half in 10 years. In doing so, they will set us on a course to end poverty in a generation," the report said.
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