Poverty Programs Embattled in the South

The big gains for Republicans in November's elections didn't stop with the U.S. House of Representatives: The GOP won governor's seats and other state-level races across the country. Nowhere were those gains more meaningful than in the South. In North Carolina and Alabama, Republicans gained control of statehouses for the first time in nearly a century. The only two states of the former confederacy where Democrats retained control of both houses of the legislature are Mississippi and Arkansas. Writing in Politico, Jonathan Martin noted those losses were exacerbated by at least 10 state legislators who switched from the Democratic to the Republican party after "concluding that there is no future in the party that once dominated the so-called Solid South."

But this is more than a political story. While Democrats across the South are generally more conservative than the national party, they still served as a steady, if reticent, bulwark against the kinds of draconian cuts many Republicans want to make to anti-poverty programs, and African-American voters and legislators had a significant voice in Democratic-controlled legislatures. Now, however, states everywhere are grappling with how to save money, and the problem is particularly potent in the South because those states already had some of the lowest spending on programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. At the same time, states across the former Confederacy routinely rank among the poorest in the nation. Poverty is especially widespread among the black and Latino populations across the South (the poverty rate for black families in Mississippi is 44 percent), and as the economy crawls slowly out of the Great Recession those groups are likely to be hit hardest by any cuts the newly elected legislatures want to make.

It's too soon to tell exactly which programs are most vulnerable, but it's certain that spending cuts are a budget priority. Every politician this year promised to balance the state budget and cut jobs, but none in the South sounded the clarion call for raising taxes on the campaign trail. "There's definitely more of an anti-tax sentiment in many of these states, even in ones where Democrats have the upper hand," says Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies in North Carolina. "You also have a resistance to seeing government as the solution to a lot of social problems."

Anti-poverty programs are among the most vulnerable because states have flexibility over how they spend federal money they receive for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and food stamps. Rules for TANF, the program once known as welfare, require states to maintain a certain level of spending to keep their block grants, but how and on what they spend the money is largely up to them.

States are already set to get less federal money than they have in recent years because supplemental and emergency programs that were either triggered by or created to deal with the recession are ending. On top of that, budgets for TANF programs in Southern states were already slim. "Historically, states in the South have spent less on funding for low-income families, so they have less in their budgets to start with," LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says. "If they have to cut, the cuts are deep."

Voluntary Medicaid programs, like dental insurance and prescription drug coverage, are likely to go first, Kromm says. Health care spending is expensive, so it's always an early target. But in North Carolina, even state-run, cost-effective and relatively cheap programs are vulnerable. North Carolina has been unique among Southern states in that it has, for years, devoted a lot of money to early childhood and other educational programs directed at low-income and minority children, who often start school behind their white, middle-class counterparts. The state's innovations have drawn national attention. "Even the most popular and effective programs are now considered up for debate," Kromm says.

The problem is made worse by the deep, ingrained resistance to any increase in taxes in many Southern states, often written into the state constitution. In Alabama, for example, changes to the tax rules require changes to the state constitution. Progressives have championed a years-long campaign to end the grocery sales tax -- Alabama is one of the last two states that doesn't offer some sort of tax break on groceries -- and replace it with higher income taxes for wealthier residents. In lieu of government spending, ending the regressive sales tax is another way to help struggling families. The incoming governor, Robert Bentley, voted for the bill once but has voted against it every other time it came to a vote: he seems an unlikely champion. Kimble Forrister, who works for the progressive organizing group Alabama Arise, says many hope that since Bentley spent time on the budget committee, he might be more aware of the real challenges ahead, and knows that relying on spending cuts to balance the budget is unreasonable. "I do know that we've elected some that are of the Tea Party ilk, but there's also a strand of the Republican Party that's more of the 'Look at the best practices,' kind of reformer," he says. "That will be the struggle within the party now that they're in control."

That struggle could actually result in some programs being saved. Budget shortfalls across the South, especially in North Carolina, are so severe that the level of cuts needed to actually balance the budgets might surprise even Republican voters. That could cause a backlash, and drum up support for saving some programs. "What you're likely to see is some degree of overreach, especially with the Tea Party candidates," Kromm says. "They are probably going to take things a little too far."

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