An annual report paints a grim picture of Tennessee lawmakers’ efforts to help people living in poverty: Nine out of 11 U.S. senators and representatives received a grade of “F” for their failure to support poverty-related legislation. Issues like access to health care, affordable housing, removing barriers to education, and protecting children of undocumented parents were mostly ignored by Tennessee officials in the midst of a gridlocked Congress.
The Poverty Scorecard was released last month by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. The data identifies poverty-related legislation considered by Congress in the past year and shows how each member of Congress voted. A press release from the Chicago-based advocacy group summarized its findings: “Congress did not do enough to help the more than 47 million Americans living in poverty.”
And it’s not like the poverty plaguing the country isn’t a real problem in Tennessee: the state has the eighth highest poverty rate in the country.
Tennessee lawmakers who received a score of “F” were: Republican U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, and Republican U.S. Reps. Phil Roe, John Duncan, Chuck Fleischmann, Scott DesJarlais, Diane Black, Marsha Blackburn, and Stephen Fincher.
“Disappointing,” said Tennessee Justice Center attorney Gordon Bonnyman, describing the failing majority. The TJC is a nonprofit law firm in Nashville that serves vulnerable families. “A lot of poor people in Tennessee are adversely affected by the votes that those representatives have taken.”
He added, “If you have a member of Congress who is voting on poverty with a pattern of an ‘F’ score, you have to conclude that this is someone who doesn’t understand how government policy contributes to mitigating poverty.”
But two Tennessee lawmakers stand out from their “failing” peers. U.S. Reps. Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen, both Democrats, earned “A” scores for their efforts on the Hill in 2015.
Reps. Cooper and Cohen – who earned grades of “A” and “A+” respectively – voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and diverting funds from Legal Services, and supported other measures aimed at helping Americans in poverty.
Cooper’s office faces Church Street Park, where Nashville’s homeless regularly gather. He sees the weary seeking relief from the heat inside the public library as he walks to his car. A Contributor vendor is regularly stationed near his favorite Green Hills coffee spot. The sight of poverty is inescapable in the city.
“This should be a solvable problem,” Cooper says. He takes those scenes back with him to Washington D.C., where he engages in a budget battle with a Republican-led Congress in an effort to fight poverty without increasing the country’s national debt.
At the forefront of his brain: making sure every Tennessean has access to health care.
“Tennessee’s refusal to expand Medicaid is hurting thousands of deserving citizens,” Cooper said. He added that the state legislature’s failure during the last session to cast a vote on expanding coverage is “deliberate cruelty towards some of the neediest among us.”
“The (state) lawmakers had time to vote on the state’s official rifle, a Bible as the official book, and a state animal, but they could not find time to consider accepting a billion dollars to help near-poor people,” he said.
At the beginning of the year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would repeal Obama’s health care law, one of its dozens of attempts to do away with the 2010 measure. Cooper voted against that measure.
Bonnyman said that making the ACA work is Tennessee’s greatest need, as its success will bring coverage for thousands of people who are eligible and who the legislature has not been willing to cover.
“With the exception of Cooper and Cohen, the rest of the delegation has voted over and over to repeal the ACA, which would not only leave hospitals struggling and thousands uncovered, but it would also strip away coverage from those who have already benefitted,” Bonnyman said.
But the scorecard notes that Cooper did not approve reauthorizing health insurance for low-income children. The Medicare Access and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) Reauthorization Act of 2015 was signed into law by President Obama and reauthorized CHIP for two years.
Describing himself as one of the “strictest people in Washington when it comes to paying bills,” Cooper said he did not approve extending CHIP because it was not able to be paid for by the government.
Cooper also voted against legislation intended to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit. The measure, now a law, lowered the income level to qualify for the CTC and increased the EITC for large families. The Shriver Center described its passage as “one of the few significant wins for people living in poverty,” and said the tax credits keep more children out of poverty than any other policy tool.
But despite the measure’s projected impacts, Rep. Cooper once again referenced the country’s outstanding deficit as his reason for not approving its passage.
“These credits increase the country’s deficit. It looks like a lower deficit, but we know due to demographics that we’re going to be faced with horrendous bills in the future,” he said.
Cooper’s failure to approve these two measures resulted in his Poverty Scorecard rating of “A,” not “A+.”
But according to the report, Cooper’s votes aimed at closing the education gap and supporting Legal Services funding earned him a grade higher than most of his peers.
Cooper said his colleagues are “anxious” in front of him because of his score. And while he is pleased with his good review, he notes that he has not reached perfection in fighting Nashville’s poverty.
“A lot of lawmakers don’t care about people who they don’t think vote for them,” he said. “But I think Tennessee philosophy has always been inclusive and to help your fellow pioneers.”
More important findings
The national scorecard illustrated a Congress that is very polarized on poverty issues. For example, 95 of 100 senators received an A or a D/F, and only five received a B or C. Two percent of representatives received a B or C. This polarization is reflected in the results for Tennessee as well.
Important poverty-related legislation that was passed included the 2009 expansions to the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, relief for welfare programs like Head Start and housing assistance in the Bipartisan Budget Act, and the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
The members of Congress from states with the highest poverty rates (like Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, and Arkansas) received some of the worst grades on the poverty scorecard.
In developing the Poverty Scorecard, the Shriver Center consulted with anti-poverty experts to develop a scoring system based on 18 (House) or 21 (Senate) votes on issues related to housing, budget and tax, employment rights, public benefits, environmental justice, immigrant justice, health care, and education.
Full Tennessee scorecard
Sen. Bob Corker ... F
Sen. Lamar Alexander ... F
Rep. Phil Roe ... F
Rep. John Duncan Jr. ... F
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann ... F
Rep. Scott DesJarlais ... F
Rep. Jim Cooper ... A
Rep. Diane Black ... F
Rep. Marsha Blackburn ... F
Rep. Stephen Fincher ... F
Rep. Steve Cohen ... A+
More information is available at povertyscorecard.org.