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Anti-Poverty Groups Prepare For Battles With New Congress


Anti-poverty groups wonder what the change in Congress means for the people they serve. After last week's election, Republicans will take charge of the Senate and strengthen their hold on the House. NPR's Pam Fessler explains why that leaves groups fighting poverty both worried and hopeful.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: For years, Republicans have been trying to cut spending on social programs like Medicaid and SNAP, also known as food stamps. And party members sometimes refer to those getting such benefits as takers. So why does David Beckmann, president of the anti-hunger group Bread for the World, seem so hopeful?

DAVID BECKMANN: Many Republicans, now, are talking much more than they were a few years ago about opportunity for everybody, including people who are really having a tough time. So I think there's some chance that we could see some bipartisanship. That's our hope and prayer.

FESSLER: Beckmann says he sees opportunity in areas such as helping ex-offenders get back on their feet. It's an issue in which Republicans have expressed a growing interest as they try to broaden their party's appeal. And Beckmann notes that two leading Republicans, Congressman Paul Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio, have put forward plans to help poor Americans. There's disagreement on the details, but the seeds for debate are there.

MEREDITH DODSON: No matter who's elected, it's not like anyone is going to bed at night being excited that almost 1 out of 4 kids are living in poverty. You know, nobody wants to see that.

FESSLER: Meredith Dodson also sees the opportunity ahead. She's with a grassroots anti-poverty group called Results. Dodson notes that child nutrition programs need to be reauthorized next year. And that's an area that's had bipartisan support in the past. She thinks there's also common ground when it comes to tax breaks for the working poor.

DODSON: Not only has President Obama, for instance, proposed expanding the earned income tax credit, but also, Representative Paul Ryan did so too.

FESSLER: Even so, there's no doubt that any optimism Dodson and others feel is tempered by reality, years of fighting efforts to cut spending for the poor, even by some Democrats. Anti-poverty activists meeting in Washington last week to plot their postelection strategy got candy kisses to help ease the pain of the battles they know lay ahead. Sister Marge Clark is a lobbyist with NETWORK, a Catholic social justice group. She says most lawmakers are focused on the middle class.

MARGE CLARK: I think they also recognize that a lot of their peers, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, really don't care about people in poverty. And talking about poverty doesn't sell.

FESSLER: So she worries what this will mean during budget talks, when programs for low-income Americans are pit against powerful interests like big business. Clark says anti-poverty groups will do what they always do, have people who rely on programs such as food stamps tell lawmakers their personal stories. She says that can have a powerful impact.

CLARK: Particularly if we can get stories from their own district or their own state.

FESSLER: Still, there's a lot of disagreement over how to help the 45 million poor people now living in the U.S. One person who's particularly upbeat about the new Congress is Bob Woodson, president of a nonprofit called the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. He advised Congressman Ryan on his anti-poverty plan. And Woodson hopes that now the discussion will shift from how much is spent on fighting poverty to how that money is spent.

BOB WOODSON: It is a false dichotomy that we keep debating, that the more we spend on the poor, the more of the poor get helped. It's just not the case.

FESSLER: He says sometimes more spending can hold people back. It's a controversial view. But at least now, says Woodson, it should get some much-needed debate. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.

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