Working off the conservative premise that food and medical assistance deprograms ambition and debases economic mobility, MSNBC's right-wing commentator S.E. Cupp tried to tell a nun on Thursday that helping the poor leaves them worse off.
That didn't exactly fly with Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic nun who's part of the "Nuns on the Bus" campaign to raise awareness of economic injustice.
"I think everyone can agree that we'd like to decrease poverty," Cupp said. "Even though conservatives have been maligned for quote unquote wanting to cut social safety programs and the social safety net, expanding welfare hasn't reduced poverty. In fact, adding millions to the ranks of welfare has seen poverty explode over the past four years. So, what's the balanced response here?"
"Excuse me, but that data is really wrong," Campbell said.
"Poverty has not exploded in the past four years?" Cupp asked.
"Poverty has increased, but quote welfare has not," Campbell said. "The real culprit here is minimum wage. Minimum wage has stayed below the poverty level. What we have to be keenly aware of is in 1970, if you worked for minimum wage it kept you out of poverty. If we were going to go back to a wage that would keep families out of poverty, minimum wage would have to be about $12.50 an hour, instead of its current $7.25. So, let's talk about the working poor. People don't realize that a big percentage of those in poverty are people who are working."
While Campbell is partially correct to blame the minimum wage for driving up poverty rates, she didn't mention the massive, gaping hole in Cupp's retort: the allegation that "expanding welfare hasn't reduced poverty."
On the contrary, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the implementation of Social Security raised one in three senior citizens out of poverty, reducing their numbers from 15.3 million to 3.8 million. The National Bureau of Economic Research charted the program's effects on a longer term, looking at senior poverty and Social Security expenditures from 1968-2001 and finding a clear correlation between more expenditures and lower poverty rates, with the biggest beneficiaries being elderly women.
Additionally, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted earlier this year that the more than 90 percent of welfare benefits go to assisting people who are elderly, disabled or "members of working households," and not to "working-age Americans who choose not to work." Though the percentage of Americans in need of those benefits has grown since 2009, data published Thursday illustrates how the crisis partially overwhelmed the safety net and caused the senior poverty rate to surge, posing a policy argument for more assistance instead of less.
Campbell, meanwhile, still made an important point: While it is true that poverty has accelerated in the years following the 2008 economic crisis, it dropped in 2010 and 2011 thanks to an improving unemployment outlook across the nation. Even so, wages have fallen about 7.2 percent since 2009 despite corporate profits and executive salaries repeatedly hitting all-time highs, according to market data compiled by Sentier Research.
Additionally, many of the top-earning companies, like Walmart, have labor policies that limit the number of full-time employees they take on, instead preferring to hire part-time workers who are paid minimum wage, which often leaves them seeking government assistance for food and shelter.
"Food stamps have been the lifeline for the working poor," Campbell said. "Working poor people in our country do not earn enough to keep both a roof over their head and food on the table, and a whole bunch of the poor people I've met on the bus don't have cars to live in. So, I think we have to be responsible as a nation: we have chosen not to raise minimum wage, we've chosen rather to have food stamps as a way to let people eat. And I'm sorry but, I believe as a Catholic and as a Christian, that everyone has a right to eat."
This video is from MSNBC, aired Thursday, November 16, 2012.