Volume 112

The Future of Anti-Poverty Legislation

by Andrew Hammond, Ariel Jurow Kleiman & Gabriel Scheffler

The era of big-government COVID relief is over. The initial pandemic-relief legislation, followed by two years of Democratic control in Washington, seemed to herald the expansion and modernization of the U.S. safety net. But sustained reform proved elusive. Now that this window of opportunity has closed, it’s time to step back and take stock. For those who focus on anti-poverty programs, one question persists: The next time there is such an opportunity to strengthen anti-poverty programs through legislation, how should federal law change?

This Article suggests the answer to that question lies in lessons from recent experience, including, but not limited to, the COVID-19 pandemic. Crisis-induced lawmaking often arises after little deliberation or careful research. It can be ill-timed and badly targeted. When Congress lurches from crisis to crisis, legislation—and the programs that legislation creates—can go for years without being updated. As those laws drift, they become less effective, especially when it comes to alleviating poverty.

How can the federal law that governs and structures social assistance in the United States become more dynamic? This Article answers that question by proposing that legislators incorporate legislative triggers and indexing—what we call “automatic fiscal policies”—to make means-tested programs more responsive to changing economic and social circumstances. Legislating in ways that promote automatic fiscal policies makes anti-poverty programs more responsive not only to economic downturns, but also to more gradual changes such as the changing nature of work, regional economic fluctuations, and climate change. This Article envisions a future of anti-poverty legislation where anti-poverty programs are dynamic—not succumbing to policy drift and primed to withstand and adapt to future challenges.

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