A Trump administration proposal would change how poverty is determined in America. If adopted, the regulatory rule would remove thousands from the federal categorization of poverty, cutting off public health care, housing and more for many already hanging on by a thread.
Here’s how the rule would work: The federal government would apply a lower measure of inflation to set the federal poverty level, which is used to determine eligibility for food, health, housing and other assistance programs for low-income households. As a result, fewer families would be eligible to access the vital support they need and would have otherwise qualified for.
With the slower growth of the poverty level compounding over time, this seemingly abstract change creates tangible harms for millions of Americans. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an estimated 300,000 children would lose comprehensive health coverage, and another 150,000 insured under the Affordable Care Act would lose cost-sharing assistance over the next 10 years.
In California alone, had this inflationary measure change been implemented in 2001, over 100,000 fewer families would have been eligible for federal support by 2017 — a number that would continue growing over time.
In reality, incomes need to be far above the federal poverty line in order for families to actually make ends meet in today’s economy. Largely bound to a formula established half a century ago, the poverty line still presumes that a family spends a third of its budget on food.
At a time when housing or childcare alone can claim half or more of a household’s income, this methodology leaves no room for the most basic of needs. This is particularly the case in the Bay Area, where housing costs soared from 2014-18, far outpacing the rate of both the current and proposed inflation measures.
Here at the Insight Center, an Oakland-based research and economic justice organization, we calculate that 3.3 million households in the state live paycheck-to-paycheck. Yet, only 1 out of every 3 of these homes is identified as living under the federal poverty line.
The Trump administration’s proposed inflationary measure would identify even fewer people in need, leaving more without access to a social safety net. Such a “fail-first” system vastly decreases one’s chances at achieving economic stability and, instead, accelerates descent into long-term poverty.
A smaller cost-of-living adjustment is no mere technicality. Rather, it is a means to ensure that many who are already grappling with poverty lose total or substantial access to a fundamental quality of life. Such a proposition violates the government’s duty to ensure an adequate safety net for its residents, depriving more and more people of core necessities each year.
During the proposed regulation’s notice and comment period, the Trump administration did not request input on the effects of changing the poverty guidelines. And yet, the grave impact on families nationwide is a cost that cannot be ignored.
Without a doubt, the federal poverty measure needs a change – one that accurately reflects and measures the cost of living. The proposed rule and its slower inflation measure do not achieve this objective. On the contrary, the change worsens the accuracy of the federal poverty line in identifying indigent households. It is in the national interest, together with our moral and ethical identity, to tell our leaders as much.
Aisa Villarosa is the associate director of policy and advocacy at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Oakland.
Opinion: Trump would reduce number eligible for public assistance