Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Next Big Effort: Tackling Poverty

WASHINGTON — For a House freshman and political neophyte, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has proved to be remarkably adept at shaping the debate on her Democratic Party’s left flank, boosting the visibility of single-payer health care through her support of “Medicare for all” and elevating climate change with her Green New Deal.

On Wednesday, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez hopes to do for the nation’s poor what she has done with health care and climate politics with the unveiling of an ambitious anti-poverty package that, among other things, would cap annual rent increases, ensure full access to social welfare programs for people with convictions and undocumented immigrants, pressure federal contractors to offer better wages and benefits, and update official poverty measurements by taking into account geographic cost-of-living variations and access to health insurance, child care, and “new necessities” such as internet access.

“I think this really starts to approach, head on, economic injustice in America,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview. “We are at our richest point that we’ve ever been, but we’ve also been our most unequal.”

She added, “it’s something that we have to talk about.”

Since defeating Representative Joe Crowley, a senior member of the Democratic leadership, during the 2018 primaries, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, 29, has used her social-media following — 4 million followers on Instagram and more than 5 million on Twitter — and strong ties to the party’s progressive wing to shift the party leftward. Her Green New Deal would move the nation’s energy economy rapidly away from fossil fuels, with vague promises of guaranteed job security. Medicare for all would replace all private insurance with one government-run health care system like Britain’s or Canada’s.

Such ideas would have once been dismissed as fringe initiatives on the far left, but many members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidates have rushed to embrace them, seeking the approval of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters.

“She’s a lightning rod,” said Dianne Enriquez, a director at the Center for Popular Democracy, a liberal advocacy group. “I think the boldness, the ability to be innovative, the willingness to go out on a limb for what she believes is right is really what makes her an ideal champion for a lot of the issues that have gone largely ignored at the federal level.”

Establishment Democrats have worried that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez have moved the conversation too far to the left too fast, becoming the policy face of the party and jeopardizing the political futures of more moderate members elected last year in Republican-leaning districts.

But in recent weeks, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has pushed out her chief of staff, who had picked fights with moderate Democrats, and moved her combative communications director to her campaign. Unlike the Green New Deal, which is a gauzy congressional resolution, her anti-poverty initiative, “A Just Society,” is six fully formed bills, written in legislative language — another sign of serious legislative intent.

She had good reason to make overtures to fellow House Democrats, who had grown weary of her staff’s antagonism. Matt Bennett, the executive vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic organization, said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is “vastly more influential” than most freshman House members.

But, he added: “Legislating is an inherently group activity. The question is, if she wants to move this legislation, or any that she’s sponsoring, can she attract co-sponsors and votes? We’ll see if she has the ability to do that as well.”

As the Green New Deal looked to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signature initiative, “A Just Society” echoes Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

“With the Green New Deal, we weren’t just talking about climate change; we’re talking about the systems that got us to climate change,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said. “We’re addressing root causes.”

“And similarly,” she added, “with our Just Society package, we’re not simply addressing poverty or wages. We’re addressing some of the basic structural reasons that are resulting in those outcomes.”

Nearly 40 million people in the United States live in poverty. Even middle-class workers face a shortage of affordable housing and stagnant wages. The problems are worse for both people of color, including immigrants, and people who were formerly incarcerated. The Trump administration’s response has been to tighten access to some federally funded low-income programs.

The bills in Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s package seek to change the federal response. She conceded that because Democrats do not control the Senate or the White House, her intention is to lay “down a vision for when we take back both of those bodies.”

The Recognizing Real Poverty Act requires the secretary of health and human services, in collaboration with the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to work with the National Academy of Sciences to change the poverty line, adjusting for family size and geographic differences in the cost of goods and services. The poverty threshold would be raised to account for health insurance costs, work expenses, child care, and consideration of new necessities such as internet access.

Poverty has been “a taboo word in our politics for so long,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said. Even if they are officially above the poverty line, there are “people who are living a quality of life on par” with the impoverished, she added, “but you wouldn’t see that based on our numbers because we choose not to measure it.”

Ms. Enriquez said housing has not been a central topic of the Democratic presidential debates, even though several contenders have released full-fledged affordable housing plans. She said she hopes that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez can help elevate the issue with one of the bills in her package, the Place to Prosper Act, which would provide tenant protections and regulate corporate landlords.

That bill would cap rent increases at 3 percent a year and restrict the reasons that landlords could evict tenants. For instance, a tenant could only be evicted if they have not paid rent for two or more consecutive months, have wrecked a property, or if the landlord needs a unit to house an immediate relative. The bill would prohibit discrimination because of the source of a tenant’s income and would provide funding for tenant legal representatives.

The act would also mandate that landlords keep rental units in good repair. It would allocate $10 billion for fiscal years 2020 through 2029 for removing toxins.

Housing in America “is a crisis,” she said, “and it’s not one that we are discussing enough at the level that we need to be discussing it.”

Two other bills, The Embrace Act and The Mercy in Re-Entry Act, would outlaw the denial of any federal benefit because of immigration status or a past criminal conviction.

The Uplift Our Workers Act would create a “worker-friendliness score” for federal contractors which would consider, for example, whether the contractor offers paid overtime for those who work more than 40 hours per week, or provides predictable scheduling, paid sick leave and paid parental and family leave.

None of this will be enacted in the foreseeable future.

“No one questions her ability to raise awareness around an issue,” Mr. Bennett said, “just because she wields her social media and mainstream media platforms very effectively. But that’s not the same as getting votes on a bill.”

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged the package’s ambitions. “I don’t think there’s any shortage of obstacles that we have ahead of us, but I don’t think that we not do things just because they’re hard,” she said. “In fact, sometimes the hard things to do are the most worthwhile.”

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