Congressman Paul Ryan wants to rebrand himself as a big thinker on poverty issues — and show a skeptical American public that the Republican party truly cares about low-income people.
He’s promised a comprehensive anti-poverty agenda to replace the efforts launched with President Johnson’s War on Poverty, to which he gives “a failing grade.”
He’s been visiting projects in inner-city neighborhoods, accompanied by Robert Woodson, the conservative founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. He’s been talking with experts at like-minded think tanks.
The agenda is yet to come. But we got something of a preview last week when he spoke at the Brookings Institution’s Social Mobility Summit.
Ryan said he “could already hear howls of protest from certain corners.” So I’ll refrain, as best I can, and try to summarize what seem to be major planks of the framework for his agenda-in-process.
Poverty is not just deprivation, but “a form of isolation.” This is Ryan’s major take on poverty in America. He goes at it from various angles — all linked to adverse government impacts.
On the one hand, “taxes take people out of the workforce” because employers would hire more people if their taxes were lower and people would “work that extra hour.” These people, one notes, are in the workforce.
On the other hand, government programs are partly responsible for cutting poor people off from education, work and family. Here Ryan is borrowing from Brookings research that’s become a well-worn conservative recipe for avoiding poverty — finish high school, get a full-time job, marry, then (and only then) have children.
But while the recipe comes close to blaming poor people for irresponsible choices, Ryan blames the federal government. It’s “walling them up in a massive quarantine,” he says.
Government anti-poverty programs create a “poverty trap.” We have a “hodgepodge” of programs created to solve different problems at different times, Ryan observes.
And they create disincentives to earning more, he says, because they result in “high marginal tax rates” — economist-speak for what a household loses in benefits, as well as the higher taxes it pays when its income increases.
The result of income cut-offs for benefits is also sometimes referred to as the “cliff effect” — a problem that’s getting attention from experts across the political spectrum.
Some government programs mitigate the cliff effect. The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, phases out rather than abruptly ending. Ryan likes this. The health insurance subsidies provided by the Affordable Care Act also phase out. Well, we know what Ryan thinks of the ACA.
Whether, as he says, the high marginal tax rates discourage work is a more complex issue than he acknowledges.
Economist Eugene Steuerle, whom he cites, told interested House subcommittees that studies have produced “mixed and ambiguous” results, but that he believes the extra income often outweighs the tax effect. Indeed, “some people may work more to generate the same net income.”
A better poverty plan would reflect two principles — simplicity and standards. Simplicity means “consolidation,” i.e., block-granting of some sort.
Ryan is intrigued by the UK’s new Universal Credit, which will replace six benefits for low-income working-age people with a single monthly cash payment and also smooth out the cliff. It’s going through “a rough patch,” he acknowledges, apparently referring to technical rollout problems.
It’s also already subject to what the Guardian calls “stealth cuts,” i.e., a three-year freeze on the amount recipients can earn before their credit starts phasing out. But it’s unfair, at this point, to say that’s why Ryan’s interested.
On the other hand, we’ve got his proposed block grants for SNAP and Medicaid, which make it hard to believe that his evolving plans “have nothing to do with a line on a spreadsheet,” as he claims.
Standards refer to work requirements, which Ryan apparently believes lead to work — “the shortest route back into society.” Also, I think, to time limits, since federal assistance should be an “onramp — a quick drive back into the hustle and bustle of life.” Note the isolation theme again.
The model Ryan likes — wouldn’t you know it? — is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
As Republicans often do, he cites results — not wholly attributable to TANF — from the late 1990s. Caseloads shrank as more welfare mothers entered the workforce. The child poverty rate declined.
But single-mother employment rates have since dropped. And single mothers who were working in 2011 earned, on average, a bit over $400 a week. The child poverty rate is higher than it was in 2000.
The most significant lasting outcome of welfare “reform” is the caseload cut — from 68% of poor families with children when it was enacted to 27% in 2010.
Only local communities can solve the problem. This isn’t a new message. I remarked on it when the House Budget Committee, which Ryan chairs, issued its latest annual plan.
Ryan made the implications clearer, however. Government, he said, has “crowded out civil society.” It’s told people that poverty isn’t their problem — and by implication, we’ve believed it.
This is a curious view of what goes on in communities today. We have scads of faith-based and other nonprofits that provide food, shelter, clothing, training, health care and more to people in need.
They depend in part on donations — in both time and money — from people who quite clearly believe that poverty is their problem. The organizations are also, in some cases, the way that government anti-poverty funds are translated into services.
And they’re the source of new solutions. The Housing First model for addressing chronic homelessness is an example — though not, one I think, that conforms to Ryan’s standards.
Ryan says that the only way to solve the problem of poverty is “face to face.” If this means that he will not only meet with, but learn from the people who’d be affected by his plan-in-the-making, then it may be a whole lot different from what he previewed last week.
I’ll reserve further howls till we see it.