Anti-Poverty Groups Set to Work with Democrats

Advocates for anti-poverty programs had little success with a Republican-controlled Congress. Now, they're eager for the new Democratic majority to step in, and they've identified several key priorities.

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Anti-poverty groups are looking forward to the Democrats takeover of Congress. They say during the years of Republican control, their issues - affordable housing, food for poor families, the minimum wage - have largely been ignored.

NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

RACHEL JONES: For Joel Berg, the midterm elections were like a double shot of espresso.

Mr. JOEL BERG (New York Coalition Against Hunger): We really think the times when we had to go every year and say don't cut our program have been replaced with how can we a little more balanced priorities in this country.

JONES: Berg heads the New York Coalition Against Hunger. He's pushing his fellow advocates to shoot for the moon, with bold proposals for Capitol Hill. Like the one where the government scraps all of its food programs.

Mr. BERG: Because instead of having one, two, three, four, five different federal nutrition assistance programs, each of which have a different bureaucracy, each of which require families to have a different application process, we'd have one.

JONES: One really big one, granted. Berg thinks that would cut red tape for families, food pantries and soup kitchens. That's not likely to happen, but Berg insists it's not just pie in the sky thinking. After all, Democrats owned the issue of poverty in America for decades, at least into the mid-'90s when Republicans muscled in on welfare reform. Advocates say they felt invisible in recent years. But they're hoping that in the 110th Congress, issues like housing vouchers, pre-school education and healthcare will get a much higher profile.

Ms. LINDA COUCH (National Low Income Housing Coalition): The past four years have been a completely defensive mode for us.

JONES: Couch says the housing voucher program for the poor has been cut to its lowest level in 30 years. And that's not all.

Ms. COUCH: We've lost public housing stock; public housing cleanliness is at all-time low this year.

JONES: Senator Jack Reed hopes to do something about that. The Rhode Island Democrat will be regaining his seat on the Senator Appropriations Committee, which controls the purse strings of Congress. Reed says that in Rhode Island, where housing values have increased 125 percent in recent years, he's seen proof of a real crisis.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): I've been in shelters where there are toddlers and pre-school children and school-aged children with their mothers and fathers, complete families, you know, sleeping in the lobby, in some cases.

JONES: But Congressman Wally Herger of California says Republicans haven't just been twiddling their thumbs about poverty.

Representative WALLY HERGER (Republican, California): The premise that somehow that Republican Congress has not been working on this and has not had incredibly positive results is an incorrect premise.

JONES: Herger is outgoing chair of the House subcommittee that overseas welfare. He says Republicans in Congress have some pretty solid anti-poverty cred. Beside the Bush administration's boost to education for poor children through No Child Left Behind, Republicans have backed funding for faith-based initiatives and expansion of children's health insurance.

Rep. HERGER: We've seen the overall poverty rate has fallen by seven percent; over 1.4 million children have been lifted from poverty. We see that welfare roles have dropped by some 60 percent, meaning those who were on welfare before are now working, living productive lives.

JONES: Regardless of which party claims the anti-poverty title, policy analyst Maria Foscarinis says don't break out the party hats just yet. She's executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

Ms. MARIA FOSCARINIS (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty): I have found over the years that when you're representing the interests of very poor people, very few people on the Hill want to hear from you. You don't really have a lot of allies that you can assume will necessarily support you.

JONES: Foscarinis says the only real success anti-poverty groups can expect to see is when both parties work together.

Rachel Jones, NPR News.

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