Congress' tax policies need to help more of us. Take it from a proud welfare queen like me.
Washington, March 19, 2020
NBC News' THINK Section
I climbed out of poverty to become a congresswoman, but I didn’t do it alone. Government programs gave me the foundation I needed and intend to expand.
You can call me a welfare queen. I proudly wear the crown. To me, a welfare queen is a woman who defies the odds against her to reign over her destiny and find a path out of poverty.
Indeed, I climbed out of poverty, but I didn't do it alone. Family support was critical. But it was government programs such as direct cash assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, federal TRIO scholarships and Pell grants, along with a solid public school education, that provided me with a foundation to build a better future for my family and myself. Now that I have a seat on the Ways and Means Committee as a member of Congress, I am championing tax legislation that would give more Americans even greater opportunity and financial security.
The misguided notion that 38 million people living in poverty can simply 'pull themselves up by their bootstraps' with no government support is ludicrous and unfair.
I was born poor, the eighth of nine kids raised by a single mother. I experienced the ravages of poverty: the gas and electricity turned off for seven to 10 days at a time, shivering nights under the covers when we ran out of coal at the end of a wintry month in Wisconsin and persistent food insecurity.
I became a mother at 18, during my senior year of high school, and started my college education shortly thereafter, in 1969. However, it wasn't until nine years later that I earned my bachelor of arts degree. Throughout that time, I had to fight to receive welfare benefits and retain custody of my child because officials wanted to count my educational benefits as income in calculating the amount of support for which I was eligible. I also held down various jobs for employers who felt entitled to exploit me by paying a scant wage and providing no workplace benefits, be it sick days or health insurance, while asking me to work above my pay grade.
After I graduated from Marquette University, my fortunes changed. I organized a community development credit union and worked for the city of Milwaukee, the state of Wisconsin and Wisconsin's state housing and economic development agency. From there, I embarked on a career in politics, first in the state Legislature, then in the U.S. Congress. I am grateful for the public support I received. Indeed, "welfare" was a hand up enabling both my family and me to become productive citizens.
Government assistance leveled the playing field for me, creating a real pathway to opportunity and success. The misguided notion that 38 million people living in poverty can simply "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" with no government support is ludicrous and unfair. The fallacy is especially galling when considering the trillions of dollars we spend in corporate welfare in the form of tax cuts and direct subsidies. That's why I've introduced the Worker Relief and Credit Reform (WRCR) Act to fight poverty by modernizing a proven program that has bipartisan support: the earned income tax credit (EITC).
The EITC is the largest cash support program today targeted to low-income households. It's one of our nation's most successful anti-poverty tools, lifting close to 6 million people out of poverty every year, more than half of them children. The EITC is successful because it supplements the incomes of low-income parents and encourages work. For workers with low earnings, the tax credit grows with each additional dollar of earnings. This incentivizes people to enter employment and low-wage workers to increase their work hours.
Under the EITC, low-income workers receive a tax credit proportional to their earnings up to a maximum point (currently $519 for a single worker making less than $15,270 a year and up to $6,431 for a married family of five making $54,884). The EITC then remains at its maximum level over a subsequent range of earned income until earnings reach the phaseout point. Because the EITC is a refundable tax credit, an individual can receive payment even if the recipient owes no taxes.
This program is truly a relief policy that pays for itself. Most EITC recipients use the funds to meet short- to medium-term needs, such as buying clothes for their children, repairing a vehicle or catching up on past-due rent and utility bills. This local spending creates significant ripple effects in the economy and beyond. So every $1 in EITC funds generates $1.50 in local economic spending, because the dollars put in the pockets of working families are invested in local communities. Studies have shown that the EITC can also improvelong-term health, educational and financial outcomes of children.
The WRCR Act would improve the EITC so it reaches even more people and provides them with even more money by increasing the amount of the credit, particularly for childless adults who get little relief now. And the WRCR Act is not just a policy to uplift the poor, but also a source of stability for the middle class in an economy in which too many Americans are one unexpected bill away from poverty. Around 161 million working Americans would benefit from this expanded tax credit. Single workers earning $30,000 and below would receive up to $4,000 per year; married workers earning $50,000 and below would receive up to $8,000. And married couples would get an average benefit increase of over $5,000.
In addition, the WRCR Act reaches many currently left out by the EITC, such as those who make too much to qualify but not enough to afford the skyrocketing cost of living. Also currently left out are low-income students attending colleges or vocational schools who have no income. My legislation recognizes that these students engage in work-like activities that benefit society at large, so they would also be eligible for the EITC. Having more money available eases the choice facing financially strapped high school graduates contemplating whether to pursue higher education or start working immediately.
And family caregivers are finally recognized in my bill, as well. In the United States, around 43.5 million people work as unpaid caregivers to their children or aging parents or to an adult family member with a disability. These caregivers are doing around $500 billion worth of work annually without receiving a dime. And they're often paying out of pocket for necessary medical care and supplies. It's past time that we value the hard work of our caregivers, so in my bill, caregivers of a qualifying dependent, for example a child under 12 or an aged relative, would be eligible to receive the maximum credit.
With the WRCR Act, recipients could also receive their credit on a monthly basis rather than as a lump sum with their annual IRS refunds so they can meet their daily expenses and stabilize their finances — without relying on predatory lenders.
Our official unemployment rates are low, for now, but this statistic and other economic indicators do not speak to the fates of those who have been systematically overlooked. As wages stagnate and the costs of basics such as health care, child care and groceries go up, people are forced to do more with less.
Working people are the backbone of America, including the working poor. The WRCR Act builds on the legacy of effective government programs that have provided people like me the ways and means out of poverty.