What South Carolinians Think About Ryan’s Poverty Forum

This Saturday, conservative leaders will gather in South Carolina for the “Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity” co-hosted by Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Tim Scott. With an overall poverty rate of 18 percent in 2014, South Carolina ranks among the ten poorest states in the country and has one of the lowest rates of health insurance coverage. And for low-income South Carolinians, these statistics are merely a reminder of the harsh realities they face.

Billed as an opportunity for conservatives to outline their major plans on tackling poverty, the forum comes after months of heightened rhetoric  on poverty and inequality—including a poverty tour by then-Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. These events are part of a concerted effort by conservative lawmakers and the media to paint the War on Poverty as a failure, even though the safety net reduced the poverty rate by more than half and lifted 48 million people above the poverty line in 2012.

Unfortunately, this newfound concern for poverty is at odds with a conservative policy agenda that would exacerbate inequality, hardship, and wage stagnation.

Under his “Opportunity Grant” proposal, Ryan has proposed converting a number of programs to state block grants, a decision that nonpartisan analysis suggests would reduce families’ ability to access key programs such as nutrition and housing assistance. In crafting this idea, Ryan and other conservatives often point to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program as a model—even though it does very little to mitigate poverty and hardship and is unresponsive to recessions.

Furthermore, in their most recent congressional budgets, Republicans obtained two-thirds of their cuts from programs helping low and moderate income families, while channeling additional resources towards tax cuts for the wealthy.

South Carolinians like Dr. Ebony Hilton take issue with this approach. Dr. Hilton grew up in poverty in Spartanburg, a city located almost one hundred miles north of Columbia, as the middle child of a mother with only a high school education. Now she earns in the six figures and serves as the first black female anesthesiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina. Dr. Hilton credits federal programs like Pell Grants for much of her success. As she told TalkPoverty, “Pell Grants allowed me to pursue higher education because when I was going through college, there was no option to call home for money for books or tuition or fees. The overwhelming amount of debt can be tremendous and can stop people from taking that extra step to pursue their life passion.”

In addition to attempting to gut programs that invest in people like Dr. Hilton, conservatives have stood in the way of policies that would raise stagnant wages, increase access to health insurance, and allow families to better balance the responsibilities of working and caring for themselves and their children.

Conservatives have stood in the way of policies that would raise stagnant wages.

For example, although a majority of Republican voters support raising the minimum wage, Republicans in Congress continue to block a minimum wage hike that would actually save $53 billion in nutrition assistance over 10 years. In contrast, longtime state advocates like Sue Berkowitz, who serves as the Director of South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, view increasing wages as a core component of an anti-poverty strategy: “You can’t not examine why we haven’t increased the minimum wage in [nearly] 10 years. We can say all these wonderful things but without real plans, we’re saying we’re comfortable with people being in poverty.”

And for South Carolinians like Yolanda Gordon, conservative opposition to expanding Medicaid and providing access to paid sick days has proved economically destabilizing. Although Gordon has an associate’s degree in occupational therapy and works part-time at a non-profit helping families of kids with disabilities, she struggles to provide for her three children—each of whom has special medical needs. To add insult to injury, South Carolina has refused to expand Medicaid, leaving her without health coverage.

Due to the intransigence of the state’s conservative leaders, Gordon is one of more than three million adults nationwide—and 123,000 South Carolinians—who fall into what is known as the “coverage gap.” That is, her income is too high to qualify her for Medicaid, but too low for the subsidies she needs to afford health insurance. Without these subsidies, the average cost of the least expensive plan is around $333 per month in South Carolina.

As Gordon battles health issues like high cholesterol—which can lead to heart attacks and strokes—the state’s failure to expand Medicaid has left her in medical purgatory. In a scenario that is all too common, Gordon can’t afford medication and regular checkups without health insurance—in fact, she won’t be able to pay for an exam until next July. In the meantime, she has put herself on a diet to try to manage her condition. As she told TalkPoverty, “For those of us in states that didn’t take part in the Medicaid expansion, we just pray to God that we don’t get sick.”

If she or her children do fall ill, Gordon is not entitled to paid sick days, as employers are not required to provide them under state and federal laws. So if her oldest daughter, who has asthma, is sick at school, Gordon has to choose between earning a paycheck or taking care of her child.

The fact is that people like Yolanda Gordon need more than political posturing—they require higher wages, health care, paid sick and family leave, and increased investments in education, training, and other supports. This summit is an opportunity for conservatives to correct their legacy and set forth a policy agenda that matches their newfound rhetoric on poverty. Let’s hope they rise to the challenge.




The Ten Worst States for Food Insecurity

Years into the economic recovery, far too many families are struggling against hunger. In fact, as the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture data reveals, 14 percent—or 17.4 million households—experienced food insecurity at some time during 2014, meaning that they had insufficient money or other resources for food.

In some of the worst performing states, almost one in five households don’t consistently have the resources to put food on the table.












Despite performing so poorly, many states on this list have adopted conservative policies that have made life harder for low-income families:

  • States like Ohio are restricting access to food stamps for unemployed residentseven if they live in regions with few job opportunities. Governor Kasich’s administration has opted to reinstate a three-month time limit on nutrition assistance benefits for some unemployed adults ages 18 to 50 who are not disabled or raising minor children, even though some counties within the state are eligible for federal waivers of this requirement. Advocates have charged that this decision disproportionately impacts minorities, as the state accepted waivers for counties with predominantly white residents while refusing them for counties largely populated by people of color.
  • Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas maintain restrictive asset tests for nutrition assistance, which decreases low-income families’ self-sufficiency by requiring them to spend down their savings or sell off assets to access assistance. Assets are important for economic mobility generally. For example, when working-age families can put aside even sums of less than $2,000—they are less likely to face hardships such as running short on food, forgoing needed health care, or having the utilities turned off.




The Ten Worst States for Child Poverty

Years into the economic recovery, child poverty remains far too high. In fact, as the most recent Census Bureau data reveals, 21.3 percent of children live in related families with incomes below the poverty line. This is enormously costly, as poverty harms children’s long-term prospects and drains the U.S. economy of an estimated $672 billion each year.

In some of the worst performing states, almost one in three children live in poverty.


Despite performing so poorly, many states on this list have adopted conservative policies that have made life harder for low-income children:

  • In Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana, fewer than 10 families for 100 living in poverty can access cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Arizona presents a particularly brutal example of prioritizing cutting families off of aid over cutting poverty. Although the state still faces one of the nation’s highest child poverty rates, it has dramatically reduced eligibility. As a result, the number of families served by TANF fell 61 percent between December 2006 and December 2013.
  • Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina fully ban individuals with felony convictions from accessing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and TANFeven well after they have served their sentence. Such bans increase the risk of parents being unable to provide for their children’s basic needs or being charged with child neglect; these policies also encourage recidivism by denying individuals the services they need to successfully reenter society after incarceration.
  • Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Tennessee do not allow incarcerated noncustodial parents to pause child support ordersthis policy traps non-custodial parents in a vicious cycle of debt, nonpayment, and even re-incarceration, further undermining their ability to be involved with their children. It is this cycle that led to the tragic death of Walter Scott, a South Carolina father who was pulled over for a broken tail light and then shot in the back while trying to flee law enforcement for fear of being arrested for owing child support debt.



The Ten Worst States for Poverty

Years into the economic recovery, poverty and economic insecurity remain far too high. In fact, as the most recent Census Bureau data reveals, the share of Americans with incomes below the poverty line—at 15.5 percent—barely budged between 2013 and 2014.

In some of the worst performing states, more than one in five residents live in poverty.


Adding insult to injury, many of these poorly performing states have doubled down on conservative policies that have made life harder for low-income people:

  • Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee have allowed wages to stagnate by not setting their minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25. For example, in Georgia, employees that are not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act can be paid as little as $5.15 per hour. This failure to raise wages has meant that a single parent of two children who works full time does not earn enough to escape poverty.
  • Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, Tennessee, and West Virginia maintain restrictive asset tests, which decrease low-income families’ self-sufficiency by requiring them to spend down their savings or sell off assets to access assistance. Assets are important for economic mobility generally—for example, when working-age families can put aside even sums of less than $2,000—they are less likely to face hardships such as running short on food, forgoing needed health care, or having the utilities turned off. But, in states like Georgia with particularly stringent tests, families can only have $1,000 in assets to access cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, with few exceptions.
  • Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas (under the leadership of newly-elected Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson), Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi have instituted drug testing that stigmatizes public assistance applicants even though they test positive for drug use at a rate lower than the general population. In Tennessee, officials found that less than 0.2% of all applicants tested positive, mirroring results in other states like Mississippi and Arizona. The cost to states for this wasteful testing has exceeded $1 million dollars collectively—money that could have been spent on strengthening the program.




The Best Poverty Journalism in 2015: TalkPoverty Radio’s Picks

Here at and TalkPoverty Radio, we recognize strong media coverage of poverty on an ongoing basis. Here’s a look back at some of the best poverty journalism in 2015. These 20 stories and op-eds drew attention to critical but underreported issues, rebutted persistent myths, shed light on barriers to economic security and mobility, lifted up policy solutions, provided insightful commentary on media coverage of poverty, and even served as a catalyst for change. (Stories are listed in no particular order.)


The price of nice nails

by Sarah Maslin Nir, New York Times

This two-part series exposes the dark world of nail salons, from wage theft to poisonous working conditions. Soon after this reporting, Governor Cuomo (D-NY) signed legislation providing greater protections to workers in New York’s nail salons.


Why New Orleans’ black residents are still underwater after Katrina

by Gary Rivlin, New York Times

In this compelling excerpt from his book, Katrina After the Flood, Rivlin explores New Orleans 10 years after Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of Alden J. McDonald, who founded one of the Deep South’s first black-owned banks. His examination reveals how New Orleans’ African-American families continue to struggle and how many remain priced out of returning home.


The remarkably high odds you’ll be poor at some point in your life

by Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post’s Wonkblog

A little-known fact about poverty in America is that “the poor” are not some static group of people living in poverty year after year. Badger and Ingraham smartly bust that myth and explain how economic hardship is a surprisingly common experience.


How companies make millions off lead-poisoned, poor blacks

by Terrence McCoy, Washington Post

McCoy’s important reporting gives voice to one of the most disturbing revelations of the year: companies are getting rich by swindling Baltimore’s lead-poisoned, poor black residents out of structured settlements for pennies on the dollar.


Under cover of darkness, female janitors face rape and assault

by Bernice Yeung, Center for Investigative Reporting

Yeung’s reporting sheds light on the silent epidemic of sexual assault among female janitors working the night shift. Through powerful interviews with survivors, Yeung underscores how our civil rights and criminal justice systems are struggling to provide justice.


Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Public defenders


John Oliver spent much of 2015 uncovering the injustices permeating our nation’s criminal justice system, including this hilarious—and horrifying—look at our massively underfunded public defense system.


The deep, troubling roots of Baltimore’s decline

by Jamelle Bouie, Slate

In the wake of the unrest in Baltimore spurred by Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police officers, Jamelle Bouie pens this thoughtful essay looking at the anger that “remains, fueled by recurring—and almost unending—deprivation.”


The myth of welfare’s corrupting influence on the poor

by Eduardo Porter, New York Times

Porter takes a critical look at the legacy of “welfare reform” and debunks the common myth—embraced by prominent conservatives such as Rep. Paul Ryan—that public assistance fuels dependency.


Michigan punishes mom for her daughter’s brain cancer

by Justin Miller, The Daily Beast

It was no accident that Martha was cut off public assistance after her 12-year-old daughter was too sick to attend school due to cancer and a stroke; Miller’s illuminating reporting underscores how Martha’s family is one of hundreds who have lost needed aid since 2012 due to Michigan’s “Parental Responsibility Act”—a misguided attempt to punish aid recipients if their children miss school.


The black family in the age of mass incarceration

by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report The Negro Family kicked off our nation’s failed experiment with mass incarceration, the peerless Ta-Nehisi Coates unpacks the role of the criminal justice system in “destroying the black family.”


An atlas of upward mobility shows path out of poverty

by David Leonhardt, Amanda Cox, and Claire Cain Miller, New York Times’ The Upshot

A child’s zip code can determine her life chances. Leonhardt, Cox, and Miller unpack a watershed study showing how neighborhoods affect children and how “moving to opportunity” can boost a child’s chances at upward mobility. (Don’t miss the interactives on how your area compares.)


Texas sends poor teens to adult jail for skipping school

by Kendall Taggart and Alex Campbell, BuzzFeed

This story follows Serena, one of more than one thousand Texas teenagers (most of whom are poor and black or Hispanic) who have been locked up in jailed in the past three years on charges stemming from missing school. Soon after this reporting, the state of Texas decriminalized truancy.


Warren Buffett’s mobile home empire preys on the poor

by Dan Wagner and Mike Baker, Center for Public Integrity

This powerful joint investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and the Seattle Times uncovered a spate of predatory and deceptive practices perfected by the latest players to profit from poverty: the mobile home industry.


Why small debts matter so much to black lives

by Paul Kiel, ProPublica

About one-quarter of African-American families have less than $5 in reserve. Kiel’s groundbreaking analysis reveals how the racial wealth gap not only renders communities of color especially vulnerable to predatory lending and aggressive debt collection practices, but also magnifies racial disparities in discriminatory policing practices and their accompanying fees and fines.


Poor women in the United States don’t have abortion rights

by Maya Dusenbery, Pacific Standard

This important piece looks at how the ban on using Medicaid dollars to pay for abortions has kept many poor women from being able to end their pregnancies—and the far-reaching economic consequences of “forcing poor women into childbirth.” .


‘I put in white tenants’: The grim, racist (and likely illegal) methods of one Brooklyn landlord

by DW Gibson, New York Magazine

This harrowing article, excerpted from Gibson’s book The Edge Becomes the Center, uncovers the “racist and likely illegal” schemes of a Brooklyn landlord who paid black tenants thousands of dollars to leave his building.


What’s in a prison meal?

by Alysia Santo and Lisa Iaboni, The Marshall Project

Part of The Marshall Project’s Life Inside series, this piece reveals how inmates in some correctional facilities are literally starving—some describe licking syrup packets to curb their hunger—as legislators seek to slash food costs.


I get food stamps and I’m not ashamed—I’m angry

by Christine Gilbert, Vox

This must-read essay from a woman receiving nutrition assistance is a poignant and in-your-face missive to everyone who has ever said poor people are lazy.


Almost half of all American workers make less than $15 an hour

by Michelle Chen, The Nation

Three years after the #Fightfor15 movement was born out of the first Fast Food Forward strikes, Chen—one of the best labor reporters out there today—explores how the fight for a living wage “is not just for economic survival but for solutions to the inequality dividing communities.”


The homeless man who works in the Senate

by Catherine Rampell, Washington Post

In an eye-opening call for raising wages, Catherine Rampell introduces us to 63-year-old Charles Gladden, who has been homeless for decades despite working in the cafeteria of the U.S. Senate.

Authors’ note: To keep things fair, articles in which Center for American Progress was quoted were excluded from consideration for this list.