Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders went to West Virginia on May 5 and spoke about the life expectancy gap between the region and other areas of the country. "Poverty is a death sentence," he said before asking for a large turnout for the state's May 10's primary. (Reuters)

As Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders prepared to campaign across the South a couple of months ago, there was a moment when it looked as though the senator from Vermont had found an opening in a region with some of the country’s poorest places.

Clinton had supported the 1996 welfare reform effort during her husband’s presidency. Sanders said the legislation had doubled extreme poverty, creating hardship for millions of Americans.  “What welfare reform did, in my view, was to go after some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in this country,” he said in South Carolina in February.

Sanders did not continue to press the issue, however, and while he has campaigned as a champion of the downtrodden and a nemesis of inequality, Sanders has not proposed many policies that would directly address the law’s negative consequences, such as an expansion of the food-stamp program or a tax credit that can be converted to cash. Now that his presidential campaign may be drawing to a close, some on the left are disappointed.

“It’s unfortunate that Sanders didn’t put anything on the table,” said economist Dean Baker, a director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research.

In the years before Clinton's reforms passed with bipartisan support, Baker recalled, the debate often devolved into stereotypes. “The idea was, ‘We can’t be associated with these people who are lazy good-for-nothings,’ and I don’t think that’s gone away,” he said. “I think Sanders, probably like everyone else, is scared of that.”

Sanders’s policy director, Warren Gunnels, objected in an interview to the suggestion that the senator should have focused more on poverty, calling it “preposterous and absurd.”

Sanders “is doing everything he can in this campaign to lift millions of Americans out of poverty and into the middle class,” Gunnels said. He pointed to Sanders’s proposal for national health insurance, an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and a major investment in infrastructure, which he said would put more Americans to work and ensure that they earn a living wage.

‘He has not suggested anything’

Sanders’s overall philosophy is to tax the rich more heavily to provide more benefits for all. The costliest benefits would come from establishing a government-run universal health-insurance program and eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities.

Yet these initiatives would not radically change the lives of the country’s poorest people. Many poor Americans already qualify for Medicaid. Higher education is a distant dream for many of them. Likewise, doubling the minimum wage would only help those who already have a job.

Economists who support Sanders’s proposals generally argue that a major increase in federal borrowing would stimulate an economy that seems persistently weak, putting more people to work and increasing national income.

When President Clinton was in office, the economy was expanding rapidly and poverty declined. Sanders’s spending could replicate those conditions — for example, he proposes an additional $1 trillion on repairing and maintaining physical infrastructure, which his campaign says would employ 13 million people.

On the other hand, some on the left say this logic just repeats what they see as the error of Clinton’s approach to poverty. The president’s policies ignored those who cannot work, whether due to a disability or because they have to care for young children or relatives who are sick, said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who has advocated for more generous family benefits.

Cohen said that focusing benefits on poor people who work is easier politically, since opponents can accuse those without a steady job of laziness. “If you say what you’re doing is for working families, nobody who votes objects to that,” he said. This focus “has shifted assistance to people who are just barely poor and not the seriously poor,” he added.

Before the 1996 law, welfare beneficiaries weren’t required to work to receive checks from the government. Critics said the system created dependency and discouraged people from working. Under Clinton’s reforms, beneficiaries had to work or participate in various kinds of employment-related activities, such as vocational training, to continue receiving benefits.

Together with his expansion of a major tax credit that increases in value as a worker’s wages increase up to a certain level, Clinton’s policies were a boon for the working poor, said Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

On the other hand, her research suggests that those who could not get steady work received less help as the law took effect. Edin and the University of Michigan’s Luke Shaefer found that the number of households living in extreme poverty in any given year — which they define less than $2 in cash a day — has roughly doubled.


Sanders voted against Clinton’s reform. Edin credited him with an “impeccable voting record” on questions of poverty throughout his career in Congress, but faulted him for not talking about the issue on the trail.

“He’s been right on the issues, and really in a principled way, but yet the only time he’s really talked about mending the safety net is in attacking Hillary,” she said. “It’s one thing to use that as an attack, and another thing to have a policy to remediate it. He has not suggested anything to mend the safety net.”

Medicare for all and more

Family leave, another plank in Sanders’s platform, would largely benefit people with jobs. Since the poorest one in five households are less likely to have steady employment, Sanders’s family-leave proposal would be worth just $7 a year to families in this group on average, according to an analysis published by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center on Monday.


 

Gunnels, the candidate’s policy director, pointed to other policies that would help people who cannot work, such as Sanders’s call for an additional $5 billion dedicated to public housing.

“The best way to make sure that Americans are lifted out of poverty is to make sure that millions of Americans have jobs, jobs that pay a living wage — and that we also do help out the most vulnerable Americans,” Gunnels said.

Sanders’s proposal for a national health-insurance system would also offer generous benefits for some poor people who aren’t working. The government would pay for long-term care for those who need it due to disability or age. Among the poorest one in five U.S. households, the value of this benefit would average about $1,300 a year, according to the Tax Policy Center. Of course, many of those households wouldn’t need this benefit, and the actual value would be far more for the households that would use it.

Additionally, adults who are poor but nonetheless do not qualify for Medicaid would gain coverage under Sanders’s plan.

In general, though, Sanders’s health-care plan would benefit affluent households more than it would poorer ones. Many poor and middle-class families already receive help from the federal government in obtaining health insurance, whether through Medicaid or through the subsidies on insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health-care legislation. Sanders’s new system would replace those benefits.


The same is true of Sanders’s proposal to pay for tuition at public colleges and universities. Since children in more affluent families are more likely to graduate from high school and apply to costly four-year degrees, these families would be more likely to benefit.


To be sure, federal health insurance and tuition grants could be priceless for those poor families that do benefit from them. In total, though, the richest one in five households would receive about twice as much on average as the poorest one in five would under Sanders’s plan, according to the Tax Policy Center.

Sanders's vision

When it comes to poverty, Sanders’s vision for the United States contrasts with the northern European democracies he often points to as exemplars. In those places, governments shield residents from extreme hardship, said Lane Kenworthy, a sociologist at the University of California-San Diego.

In some places, such as Denmark and Sweden, citizens and sometimes immigrants who can’t support themselves are guaranteed a minimum income. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and France, use a combination of tax credits, housing allowances and other benefits to achieve the same goal.

Kenworthy cited data showing that people in Finland, Germany and Denmark are guaranteed incomes in excess of $20,000 annually. In the United States, the equivalent figure is below $10,000, including housing, public assistance and tax credits that can be refunded in cash (not just used to pay taxes).

These schemes aren’t perfect — as in the United States, some Europeans don't benefit from them, perhaps because they can’t meet certain requirements imposed on beneficiaries or simply because they are unaware of what they are entitled to. Where these programs are available, though, they seem to help reduce dire poverty.

About 0.2 percent of the French population was living on less than $2.15 per person per day in 2008, according to an E.U. report. Edin and Shaefer’s estimates suggest that something more like 1 percent of the U.S. population is living on less than $2 per household per day, an even more extreme measure.

Because this subject is so politically fraught in this country, Kenworthy said he doesn’t blame Sanders for avoiding it during the campaign.

“They, basically, are okay with insuring that people at the bottom have a decent income,” Kenworthy said of the Europeans. “That’s just proved so contentious over time in the United States. Even somebody as progressive as Bernie Sanders hasn’t been willing to put that on the table, precisely because it’s so contentious.”


Bernie Sanders listens to a speech at the State House in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 18. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)