Congressman Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, held a hearing last week supposedly to get a “progress report” on the War on Poverty.
A highly suspect enterprise, since Ryan had already proclaimed the War on Poverty a failure — most recently less than a week before the hearing.
“When I look at the money spent, when I look at the programs created, when I look at the miserable outcomes and the high poverty rates, … [I say] ‘We can do better than this.”
Interestingly, however, most of the witnesses he’d called didn’t engage in wholesale trashing on our anti-poverty programs, though Jon Baron, who heads the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, came pretty close.
Ryan’s Republican committee colleagues pulled out all the stops. References to “perpetual dependency,” confiscating taxpayers’ money, a remarkable attack on the Catholic church for calling on the government to help serve the poor.
Democrats countered with some myth-busting — mainly the notion that poor people don’t want to work. They also repeatedly noted that large majorities of safety net beneficiaries either are working or aren’t expected to — because they’re children, elderly and/or severely disabled.
And they took the occasion to point out the irony of a hearing on poverty when the House has already passed a budget (Ryan’s creation) that guts several major safety net programs and sets a spending level that will force severe cuts to others.
In the midst of all the bickering and posturing, some genuine issues emerged. To me, the biggest of all was what we should expect anti-poverty programs to do — and how we can know whether they’re doing it.
For Ryan, the programs have “miserable outcomes” because about 46 million people fell below the official poverty threshold last year.
Congressman Van Hollen, the committee’s highest-ranking Democrat, and Sister Simone Campbell, best known as the leader of the Nuns on the Bus, countered with top-line figures from the Supplemental Poverty Measure.
As I’ve written before, the SPM factors in major non-cash benefits, e.g., SNAP (the food stamp program), plus money received from the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and partially refundable Child Tax Credit.
These benefits reduce the SPM poverty rates — or, as is commonly said, lift people out of poverty. Some examples from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which foresightfully launched a preemptive strike on Ryan’s messaging.
Not good enough for Congressman Sean Duffy. We need to “get to the root cause of poverty, not just address pain.”
Nor for Ryan. “We focus on how much money the government spends.” True in his case for sure. “We should focus on how many people get off public assistance — because they have a good job.”
Or more tellingly in the TV clip I linked to above. “Our goal is not to make poverty easier to handle … and live with. Our goal in these programs ought to be to give people a temporary hand so that they can get out of poverty.”
And so Ryan chose to put Eloise Anderson, head of his home state’s Department of Children and Families, on the panel — the Republicans’ “star witness,” Greg Kaufmann at The Nation smartly observes.
The state’s welfare program got 93% of families off the rolls, she said. What we need in other programs are work requirements and time limits like those in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
No one, I think, would argue against programs that help people who can work prepare for and find jobs that will enable them to support themselves and their families. (Whether that’s a good description of TANF is another matter.)
But time-limiting all our safety net programs will surely leave some people in destitution — rather like the conditions former reporter Dan Morgan recalls from the early 1960s.
And is getting people off the rolls and over the official poverty line the only result we should measure?
What then do we do about people who are too old or too disabled to work — or working and still unable to make a go of it without public assistance?
About children, whose health, well-being and future prospects are significantly improved when they’ve got enough to eat, good medical care, a safe, stable place to live and positive learning experiences from an early age?
I’d be the last person to say that our anti-poverty programs are all they ought to be. But the only result Ryan and compeers seem willing to credit is far too narrow.
I personally think that a group so eager to claim their Christian bona fides would hesitate to dismiss programs that feed the hungry and heal the sick — services that local charitable organizations can’t do alone.
See, for example, the Bread for the World figure Sister Simone cited to show this — a $50,000 per year additional burden on every single congregation in the country merely to compensate for the SNAP cuts in Ryan’s budget.
And it’s genuinely offensive to hear Ryan claim that his attacks on anti-poverty programs aren’t “about cutting spending.”
If he really wanted to “start a conversation” about how we could better approach the multifarious problems that underlie our high poverty rate, then why has he plunged ahead with budgets that embody his radically right-wing conclusions?