On the day a memo detailing the phone call between Trump and the Ukranian president was released, the congresswoman from New York unveiled an ambitious anti-poverty package she’s calling “The Just Society”—a reference to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” which saw the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, and the modern U.S. welfare state, and cut the U.S. poverty rate nearly in half.
A just society, Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview for NowThis, “recognizes and eradicates poverty.” For the millions of us who are poor and low-income, this should also be headline news.
The Just Society is a package of five bills. The first, the Recognizing Poverty Act, directs the Department of Health and Human Services to recalculate the official poverty line to more accurately reflect the number of Americans facing financial hardship — a figure badly distorted by official metrics.
According to recently released Census Bureau data, while the official poverty rate dipped slightly to 11.8 percent, the supplemental poverty measure—a more comprehensive, but still inadequate measure—showed little change, hovering at about 13.1 percent (pending an additional review by the Census.)
These outdated measures are vast undercounts of Americans living in financial distress. The Institute for Policy Studies and the Poor People’s Campaign, for example, estimate that between 135 and 140 million of us are poor and low-income. These figures include people living at up to twice the supplemental poverty rate, which comes out to over 40 percent of us. (That’s about equal to the percentage of Americans who can’t afford a $400 emergency.)
Ocasio-Cortez’s bill would take into account geographic variations in cost of living, access to health insurance and childcare, and access to “new necessities” like internet access in determining who counts as poor. Whether those considerations would bring the official count up to 140 million isn’t yet known, but it would be a step in the right direction.
A more comprehensive poverty threshold would ensure that more poor and low-income Americans could access necessary public services. The official poverty threshold is used, for example, to determine Medicaid eligibility, among many other services. But the artificially deflated official numbers exclude millions from qualifying.
Four additional bills seek to address the root and systemic causes of poverty.
The Place to Prosper Act regulates large landlords, protecting vulnerable tenants from various abuses of power. Among other things, it would prevent landlords from raising rent more than 3 percent per year.
The Mercy in Re-Entry Act and the Embrace Act would prevent discrimination in access to federal public benefits — like student loans, SNAP, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Familes, or TANF — on the basis of past criminal conviction and immigration status. An estimated 8 percent of Americans have felony convictions, which could limit their access to these services well after their time is served.
The final bill in the package advises the Senate to ratify the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which would act as symbolic commitment to prioritizing economic hardship and inequality.
With this range of strategies, Ocasio-Cortez acknowledges the many factors that contribute to hardship. Still, some bills in the package could go further than they do.
For instance, while Ocasio-Cortez seeks to protect tenants from abuses by landlords, her legislation does not expand the availability of affordable housing.
By contrast, the People’s Action network has developed a comprehensive Homes Guarantee proposal that would build 12 million new housing units over the next decade and invest $150 billion in existing public housing infrastructure over the next five years. It even includes a reparations plan, a national tenants’ bill of rights, and provisions to “green” affordable housing to complement Ocasio-Cortez’s broader Green New Deal framework.
And while the Mercy in Re-entry Act would reduce federal barriers to services, it wouldn’t necessarily prevent state and local authorities from imposing their own harsher restrictions against people with prior convictions. It should. And while the Embrace Act does stipulate that immigrants are eligible for benefits regardless of status, it could be undermined by not explicitly repealing Title IV of the 1996 so-called “Welfare Reform” bill, which restricted benefits for eligible immigrants.
Finally, an aspirational package should not only to expand eligibility to overly restrictive and underfunded safety net programs. It should increase the benefits themselves so they are more effective for those who need them.
However, there’s no question that Ocasio-Cortez’s vision for a Just Society is a big step in the right direction—and just the kind of ambitious attack on economic hardship that we need. While a tense nation focuses on the scandals of the Trump administration, let’s not lose sight of the deep policy changes we need to become a country that works for all of us.