House Democrats Hold Hearing on Poverty in America

The House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee held a hearing on April 14 titled “The Failure of Trickle Down Economics in the War on Poverty.,” Witnesses spoke about families struggling to make ends meet while stuck in an endless cycle of poverty that leads to poor health and educational outcomes, harming community wellbeing and the overall U.S. economy. Housing was discussed as a key issue to be addressed for ending systemic poverty.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in her opening remarks, “Addressing poverty in America is a searing challenge to the conscience of our country. How can it be that we, the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth, that in our country one in five children lives in poverty? How could it be that maybe one in four children in America goes to sleep hungry at night? How can it be that in the land of the American Dream, so many of our fellow Americans are stuck – so many are struggling?”

Dr. Kathryn Edin, who recently spoke at NLIHC’s Policy Forum (see Memo, 4/11), testified about her research on welfare reform and the myths about low-income families, detailed in her book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. She explained that the number of people subsisting on $2 per day rose dramatically after welfare reform and that a very small percentage of households eligible for Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) actually receive assistance. She also pointed out that the poor are deeply committed to work but that jobs available to them do not provide enough to shield them from poverty.

Dr. Matthew Desmond of Harvard University discussed the affordable housing crisis facing families of modest means and how evictions from their homes lead to negative outcomes in all areas of their lives. He cited the experience of families he followed in his latest book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, to describe the struggle so many people experience maintaining decent housing. Dr. Desmond also discussed how most poor renting families spend the majority of their income on rent and utilities and that if we invested more in affordable housing, families would be able to better meet other basic needs. He said investing in housing is simultaneously an investment in human capital and America’s communities and should be considered a public health initiative. 

Two additional witnesses spoke powerfully of their own personal struggles and successes in escaping poverty and of the barriers to housing they faced when experiencing homelessness or leaving the prison system.

Representative Gwen Moore (D-WI) questioned the notion that the development of housing unaffordable to poor families will trickle down and become affordable to them in the near future. Dr. Desmond said he was unaware of studies showing that this “filtering” theory worked. He said that cities experiencing tight rental markets need to identify and overturn policies that prevent the development of affordable housing and access to areas of opportunity. Dr. Desmond stated, “Housing is too fundamental a human need. It’s too central to children’s flourishing. It’s too basic to economic mobility to be just considered a commodity.”

Watch the archived webcast of the hearing at:  

Dr. Desmond will speak at an event in DC hosted by NLIHC, the Coalition on Human Needs, and the National Housing Conference on April 28. There are just a few seats left. Register at: