Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., on Wednesday unveiled a package of anti-poverty proposals to give more people — including undocumented immigrants — access to federal benefits such as Medicaid.
The bills — packaged as a bundle called "A Just Society" — would expand access to benefits by updating the federal poverty line to include expenses like child care and Internet access and be adjusted based on where someone lives. About 40 million Americans live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census.
"I think one of the things that, that we can get done is build popular support in acknowledging how bad the problem already is. In doing so, we can actually begin to fundamentally address those problems," Ocasio-Cortez told NPR's Steve Inskeep. "If we can acknowledge how many Americans are actually in poverty I think that we can start to address some of the more systemic issues in our economy."
She spoke to NPR on Tuesday ahead of a closed-door afternoon meeting of the Democratic Caucus, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed plans to launch an impeachment inquiry. Calls among Democrats for impeachment have grown recently as reporting emerged that President Trump allegedly pressured the Ukrainian leader to investigate political rival Joe Biden.
Ocasio-Cortez has been critical of her party's reluctance on impeachment, and in the interview, she said she appreciated her colleagues' concerns that proceedings could be a political risk. But, she said, the risk is necessary.
"I think that those ... concerns are understandable, but the actions that [Trump] has been taking to essentially dismantle our democracy I think take precedent over that," she said.
On proposing access to benefits to immigrants, regardless of citizenship status
Immigrants pay taxes, and when we begin to unify our systems, I think that we will get more cohesive immigration policy, economic policy, political policy. ... And I think it sends a message that if you contribute to our society, you should benefit from our society. ...
Why should a billionaire who evades taxes collect Social Security, too? I think that what we can do is we can tighten up our systems and increase accountability. But what this says is that we will not discriminate solely based on immigration status.
On the Green New Deal (a nonbinding resolution) having an effect on public conversation — without having been passed by the House
I think the conversation that the Green New Deal sparked — like if I had to decide would I rather have the resolution passed or would I have rather preferred we start a national conversation about the urgency of the climate crisis — I would have chosen the latter every single time.
On House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's role and why she's supporting more progressive challengers to Democratic House seats
We have to be very careful about where the balance of the party is. So being a speaker is not ... a very enviable job. You're kind of herding cats. But I think we need to take progressives in the party as seriously as we're taking conservatives in the party.
Kelli Wessinger and Ashley Brown produced and edited this story for broadcast. Heidi Glenn adapted it for the Web.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is in line with her party for the moment. Just last weekend, the New York lawmaker was attacking Democrats. She said the party's failure to impeach the president was a bigger national scandal than the president himself. Yesterday, Ocasio-Cortez approved as Speaker Nancy Pelosi was moving toward impeachment. Some Democrats fear political damage from acting. Ocasio-Cortez argues that not acting would be worse.
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: If we don't pursue impeachment and all of those people who turned out in 2018 to elect a Democratic majority thinking that that Democratic majority would be a check on the runaway actions of this administration, and they see that they do everything they can to organize turnout and then we do nothing, that deeply threatens a demoralization of American voters.
INSKEEP: Ocasio-Cortez is the democratic socialist, just shy of 30, who unseated a top Democrat in 2018. She's soared to prominence as a critic of the president and sometimes of Democrats. She pushed the party on climate, throwing her sudden fame behind the Green New Deal. And today, she releases anti-poverty proposals. Her bills would open social benefits to all people, even undocumented immigrants. She also calls to change the way the federal government measures poverty. She wants the federal poverty line to be higher in some places than others.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: You may be making a certain amount in New York City or in Washington, D.C., that is enough in other parts of the country, but you are effectively living in poverty, and so we need to account for geographic variation as well.
INSKEEP: It seems to me that the things that you like about that proposal are the very things that make it politically difficult.
INSKEEP: A lot more people would be on Medicaid, for example, and other federal benefits because the poverty line would be higher. People in New York, which you represent, would be dealing with a different poverty line and getting more benefits than people in Alabama. Do you think you could ever get that done?
OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I think one of the things that we can get done is build popular support in acknowledging how bad the problem already is. In doing so, we can actually begin to fundamentally address those problems. So it's not an issue of getting more people into federal programs. But if we can acknowledge how many Americans are actually in poverty, I think that we can start to address some of the more systemic issues in our economy.
INSKEEP: But you're going to get a lot more people into federal programs. That's what would happen if you made that one change.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: It would absolutely make more people eligible for federal help. But, frankly, I think a lot of those people - there are a lot of people that need help right now.
INSKEEP: Why change the law to assure social benefits will go to people, regardless of immigration status?
OCASIO-CORTEZ: Immigrants contribute to our country economically. Immigrants pay taxes. And when we begin to unify our systems, I think that we will get more cohesive immigration policy, economic policy, political policy. I think that there's a political argument, an economic argument, a moral argument, for doing so. And I think it sends a message that if you contribute to our society, you should benefit from our society.
INSKEEP: Now you're correct that immigrants pay taxes, and even people who are here without legal status often end up paying taxes. And yet, you can see the objection to that. Why should someone who is here illegally be able to claim Medicare, to claim Social Security, who knows what else?
OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I mean, why should a billionaire who evades taxes collect Social Security, too? I think that what we can do is we can tighten up our systems and increase accountability. But what this says is that we will not discriminate solely based on immigration status.
INSKEEP: Well, that's really interesting because this is a talking point of President Trump. Illegal immigrants, as he would phrase it, are costing us money, they're using up all these services, we can't afford them, we're paying for them throughout their lives. It's not even been true for the most part.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: Yeah, it's not true.
INSKEEP: You want to make it true. You want to say they should be able to claim benefits.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I think it's not making it true. Because even if you look at Federal Reserve studies that said if we did this, immigrants would still pose a net positive contribution in terms of economic productivity to the government. I mean, we have been on the defense of Trump's rhetoric, false rhetoric, for so long. And I think it's about time that we challenge it.
INSKEEP: The last time you and I sat here, you were about to present your version of the Green New Deal. It had a huge effect on public conversation and even the presidential campaign, but it hasn't been passed. Does that count as a success?
OCASIO-CORTEZ: I think it does count as a success, absolutely. Because the Green New Deal, first and foremost, is a resolution. It's not a bill. If we passed it, it would merely express the sense of Congress to meet these ambitious goals. And so if it were passed, I think it would be a profound action by the House to acknowledge the crisis. But I think the conversation that the Green New Deal sparked - like, if I had to decide, would I rather have the resolution passed, or would I have rather preferred we start a national conversation about the urgency of the climate crisis, I would have chosen the latter every single time.
INSKEEP: Let me circle back to impeachment. When you made that critique of your party, that your party's inaction was getting to be more scandalous than the president himself, where does Speaker Pelosi fit in that critique?
OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I think where we have to see is that we have to be very careful about where the balance of the party is. So being a speaker is not - I don't think it's a very enviable job. You're kind of herding cats. But I think we need to take progressives in the party as seriously as we're taking conservatives in the party.
INSKEEP: Is Speaker Pelosi not doing that?
OCASIO-CORTEZ: I think the balance of the caucus doesn't do that. But I think - that I think is the issue. See, the thing that's tough is that you have a scale. Like, if the speaker is acting as a scale, we also need to add more weight to the progressive caucus.
INSKEEP: Is that why you have been supporting some primary challenges of existing Democratic lawmakers?
OCASIO-CORTEZ: Yeah, I think that's definitely one rationale for it.
INSKEEP: You think that the way to change the way the speaker behaves is to change the membership of the Democratic caucus...
OCASIO-CORTEZ: We have to change the balance of the party, yeah.
INSKEEP: Representative Ocasio-Cortez, thank you so much.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
INSKEEP: Now, we checked her statement on Federal Reserve studies of immigrants. Studies do find immigrants to be an economic benefit, though they do not distinguish between those with or without documents. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.