Policy & Advocacy: Poverty in the U.S.

Millions of Americans rely on the continuation of programs like SNAP and Medicaid. Learn about these and other policies that lift Americans out of poverty.

At WhyHunger, we believe that combating poverty means not just top-down government policies, but also bottom-up grassroots solutions. Neither approach, however, can be successful alone. To eradicate poverty means fostering self-reliance and building power with those who have long been without resources. Policies at the local, state and federal level are all instrumental toward accomplishing this goal.


People living in miserable poverty, Elm Grove, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma” by Dorothea Lange – Library of Congress LC-USF34- 009694-E. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c29107. Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


Federal Policy

As anti-poverty advocate Peter Edelman writes, a focus on jobs is essential in order to attack poverty. In order for individuals to become active members of their communities, they should first be able to support themselves, and a well-paying job is instrumental toward this end. Several federal policies have already proven effective in combating poverty and empowering the poor, though they can be improved:

  • The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a refundable federal income tax credit that is targeted toward working individuals that are of low to moderate income. The credit rewards work (because only those with earned income are eligible for the credit) and puts money directly into the pockets of those that need it. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the federal EITC lifted 3.3 million children out of poverty in 2012. While the EITC has been effective in reducing poverty and has generated praise from politicians of both parties, the program could be improved. While the maximum credit for someone filing with two qualifying children is $5,460, someone with no qualifying children can only receive a maximum of $496. The credit should be raised so that those without children can receive a more adequate supplement to their wage.
  • The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour for covered nonexempt employees. On the positive side, the minimum wage is a way to increase incomes at no direct cost to taxpayers. However, the federal minimum wage does not rise with inflation or the cost of living. Only congressional action (followed by the signature of the president) can lead to an increase in the minimum wage. This has led to a situation in which a full-time worker living with two children earning the minimum wage makes about $15,000 per year and is nearly $3,000 below the poverty line. The minimum wage, along with the EITC, boosts the earnings of the poor but can be more effective. Making increases in the minimum wage automatic (whether by indexing it to inflation, to growth in average wages, or another objective measure) would ensure that political gridlock would not endanger the economic security of the lowest-paid workers and would thus be a significant step toward addressing the problem of low wages and poverty.
  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly the “food stamp” program) is not only a safety net for millions of low-income families, but can also be characterized as a wage supplement in our low-wage economy. According to the research group Urban Institute, if the cash value of SNAP benefits were added to the money income of families, then it would move many working families above the poverty threshold. Additionally, by putting money into the pockets of those who are very likely to spend it, the SNAP program stimulates the economy; according to the USDA, every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates $9.20 in economic activity.

These are just a few federal anti-poverty policies that need to be focused on in the context of the nationwide struggle against poverty. Several others that play an important role in helping and empowering the poor include the Child Tax Credit and the Child & Dependent Care Credit (which helps working poor support their families), Medicaid (which, when effectively administered, means that the working poor do not have to bankrupt themselves or their families due to medical costs), and housing assistance (thereby helping the poor achieve stability in residence).

For more information on SNAP and other federal food programs, explore the Hunger in the U.S. topic.

State Policy

Federal policy is only the tip of the iceberg. Many federal policies are administered by the states and, as such, result in highly divergent outcomes. This makes a focus on the state level all the more important. Two major policies jointly managed by federal and state resources provide assistance to those with very low income:

  • Medicaid, the public health insurance program for low-income individuals, covers about 66 million Americans per year, cost $415 billion in fiscal year 2012, and is the largest source of federal grant support to the states. States are given wide latitude to craft and administer the program within federal requirements, and as a result, each state differs in eligibility requirements, services covered, quality of services and available resources. The 2010 Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid eligibility, but states are not required to opt-in to the expansion, and many have refused it.
  • The federal government provides the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant to states, territories, and tribes to provide financial assistance to very low-income families with children during critical times of need. States have the freedom to use these funds to operate their own programs, including wage supplements, child care, education, job training, transportation, food assistance and other services needed to support very poor families. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the TANF grant was set at $16.5 billion each year in 1996 and has not changed since, resulting in a 30 percent fall in real value due to inflation. States are also required to spend their own dollars for TANF; they must spend at least 75 percent of what they had spent under the policy TANF replaced in 1996. According to a CLASP policy report, TANF has been running since 2010 under a series of short-term extensions and is long overdue for reauthorization. CLASP advocates for increase funding for the program and a renewed focus on alleviating poverty and “preventing material hardship” for those who are especially vulnerable.

For state-by-state development profiles and assessments of state policies, see the Food Security Learning Center’s Rate the States topic.



Like national food policy, anti-poverty policies must be constantly monitored because there is often intense political pressure to cut funding or change eligibility for programs, especially those that benefit low-income communities. Advocacy is essential, and it takes three basic forms: defending programs and opposing program cuts; expanding and improving programs; and developing innovative new initiatives. Advocacy groups work at the federal, state and local levels on anti-hunger and anti-poverty initiatives and to protect, strengthen and expand the federal food programs.

On the national level, groups like the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), and RESULTS collect and distribute information on current legislation and advocacy activities. For up-to-date news on the latest initiatives affecting federal food programs and how you can make your voice heard, visit the FRAC Legislative Action Center.

Additionally, state and local anti-hunger and anti-poverty organizations – often through a broad base of members ready to call or write their legislators – can be powerful voices advocating for expansion of federal food programs, as well as for anti-poverty measures such as increasing the minimum wage. Initiatives to alleviate poverty help to fight hunger as well, since increasing people’s economic resources allows them more access to nutritious food.


Updated 08/2014