Recently listened in on a telephone interview with Congressman Paul Ryan, architect of the House of Representatives’ Fiscal Year 2012 budget plan.
One never knows, of course. But I’m inclined to believe that Ryan genuinely believes what he says.
In any event, we need to take what he says seriously because it shows how the Republican leadership wants to refashion social policy — and how it will justify the changes.
So here, in a nutshell, is what Ryan had to say about safety net programs and my comments thereon.
The House plan saves the safety net. This is Ryan’s over-arching argument. Our nation faces a fiscal crisis, he says. If we don’t address it, we’ll have to make drastic austerity cuts like what we’re seeing in Greece.
The House plan makes “gradual, sensible reforms.” They avert “real pain” because the alternative will be “cutting everyone indiscriminately.”
In other words, cuts to safety net programs are inevitable. We can opt to phase them in now or be forced to make them in one fell swoop later.
The former is better because only across-the-board cuts are painful. Why targeted cuts aren’t painful to the people they affect is a mystery.
Unsaid, but clearly implied is the notion that the federal government can’t afford to sustain safety net programs as they’re designed today. This should not be surprising since Ryan rules out any deficit reduction plan that involves raising more tax revenues.
Also unsaid, but clearly implied is the notion that safety net programs are a major factor in the upward-trending deficit. Not, so far as I know, a conclusion the data will support.
Experts of all political stripes are concerned about the rising costs of health care. These, of course, affect federally-subsidized health insurance programs, but the programs aren’t the driver.
Safety net programs help too many people. Ryan says we need to focus safety net programs on people who need help the most — and away from those who need it least.
In other words, eligibility standards for safety net programs should be made more restrictive. They’re now including people who should be left to cope on their own.
Ryan doesn’t say what the standard of need should be. One has to assume that it would be well below the federal poverty line to yield the kinds of savings he seems to feel are needed.
We’d then live in a society that accepts hunger, homelessness, untreated illnesses, etc. as just sad facts of life — something we can’t collectively do much about because it’s more important to have lower top tax rates.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families should be the model for all safety net programs. All “welfare” programs, it seems, should be time-limited. Their reason for being is to “get people back on their own two feet.” Too frequently they become “a web that entraps people into a life of dependency.”
I’ve animadverted before about House Republicans’ seeming romance with TANF.
More generally, the notion that safety net programs undermine initiative, hard work and the like is becoming a virtual truism — and not among Republicans only.
Here in the District of Columbia, for example, our dyed-in-the-wool Democratic mayor, among others, has used it to justify time-limiting TANF benefits.
What’s striking to me is the assumption that people who need public benefits are, without exception, just down on their luck. They can all, with some training and other services, become entirely self-sufficient.
I can’t help thinking that Ryan and his ilk don’t know much about people who receive public benefits. Many of them, after all, are working but can’t earn enough to full support themselves and their families.
That takes a lot of money these days — even in places that aren’t as high cost as, say, the D.C. metro area, where a parent with two kids would need at least $63,430 a year just to pay for basic living costs.
Many low-income people face what experts tactfully term “employment barriers” — severe intellectual and/or physical disabilities, debilitating mental and/or physical illnesses, dependents with same, functional illiteracy, criminal records, etc.
It’s surely right and proper to do all we can to help these people get into the workforce. But adopting a system that will leave them entirely dependent on their earnings — no subsidized child care or health insurance, no housing vouchers, no nothing?
Communities should be free to have whatever sort of safety net they want. Ryan claims that Washington has denied communities “flexibility” and opportunities for “innovation.” This is the other face of his aim to extend the TANF model to other safety net programs.
In point of fact, state and local policymakers seem to have considerable flexibility now when it comes to outreach innovations, service delivery models, program administration and, even to some extent, benefits.
Anyone who thinks the federal government should get out of the standards-setting business altogether should take a look at how states are using the flexibility they’re afforded under TANF.
I, for one, would rather see Washington “lull creativity” than see any state limit safety net programs to 24 months and/or to households at 14% of the federal poverty line.
UPDATE: After I posted this, I learned that the interview is now online. You can listen to it or download the transcript here. Caution, however. The transcript is not 100% accurate.