House Republicans Take on Poverty, Have Little New to Say

House Speaker Paul Ryan may not be the policy wonk some say he is, but he’s a smart politician. He’s decided the Republicans have to start being for something, rather than just against everything the Obama administration has done — and Democrats want.

And he’s decided that being for radically less federal spending won’t do — not, as least, unless it’s a seemingly secondary benefit of policies that have something else going for them. Understandably, since reducing the deficit by spending cuts alone hasn’t polled well.

So he appointed House Republicans to task forces, each charged with producing policies that their party can be for. He revealed the first in the “better way” series this morning — the anti-poverty package.

This shouldn’t surprise us, since he’s made a big deal about his concern — genuine, I think — for poor Americans. Nor, I suppose, should the recycled rhetoric surprise us.

What might — it surely did me — is the egregious lack of policy specifics, except for the portion on evaluation. That, as you might expect, takes off from the claim that we can’t say whether most programs for low-income people work, but can say that most evaluated don’t.

The report leads off with an overview of the “welfare system” — not what we think of as welfare, but all federal programs that link eligibility to income levels, including some targeted to communities, not individuals.

Nothing new here, since it borrows from Ryan’s earlier account of the War on Poverty. The framework for what follows is thus that we’ve too many programs, run by too many federal agencies spending too much — and to no effect, since the poverty rate (two years ago) was basically the same as in 1996.

We’ve got a better measure than the official measure House Republicans use. An analysis based on it found that safety net programs the official measure doesn’t count have significantly reduced poverty rates.

The task force, however, uses the official rates as a jumping off point. Like Ryan’s earlier takes, its report asserts that the federal government measures success by how many people receive benefits, rather than by how many “get out of poverty.”

So how then are to we get more people out of poverty? We’ll expand work requirements, of course. All “work-capable” adults must work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving benefits of any sort.

How they’re to find jobs or suitable training opportunities the report doesn’t say — presumably, however, not through more federal funding.

We do, however, find an additional incentive states may use to prod them into finding jobs that pay far more than the minimum wage — a time limit, as well as a work requirement for people who live in public housing or receive any other sort of federally-funded housing assistance, e.g., vouchers.

It’s not only potentially employable adults who’ve got to work. The task force rehashes the old complaint about the number of children who receive Supplemental Security Income benefits because they have severe disabilities.

They receive benefits for too long, it says — on average, 26.7 years, which doesn’t seem all that long to me. However, they won’t receive benefits any more, if the task force has its way.

It would “reform” the program so as to provide “access to needed services in lieu of cash assistance.” No recognition whatever of disabilities that make gainful work impossible — or the fact that parents of SSI recipients must often support them indefinitely.

The task force does acknowledge “challenges” work-able adults face — child care, for example, transportation, stable housing and “help buying groceries.”

What then should the federal government do? “Work with community partners,” i.e. nonprofits and for-profit businesses, “to address hurdles.” Period.

The federal government could, however, penalize states that didn’t get people out of safety net programs swiftly — hurdles notwithstanding. It would give them an incentive by ratcheting down reimbursement rates as people remain in the programs longer. Not a forthright proposal. The report again fluffs.

On a more positive note, the task force recommends providing work-readiness activities for noncustodial parents so as to increase their ability to pay child support.

It would also let states receive waivers from unemployment insurance rules so they could explore better ways to get UI recipients back into the workforce. Nothing to object to here, though one might after seeing those better ways.

More generally, the task force would, of course, give states more flexibility. It alludes to letting them link welfare programs — presumably as block grants, though it uses neither that term nor others House Republicans have come to prefer.

Those voluntary links nevertheless recall Ryan’s Opportunity Grants — those mega-block grants he floated nearly two years ago.

We also find what seems a block grant in the section on education. First we’re treated to the usual trashing on Head Start for failing to produce demonstrable, lasting academic outcomes — broadened, however, to apply to early childhood education programs generally.

Then a suggestion that the federal government could “combine investments,” streamlining and simplifying its involvement. Involvement here seems reduced to sponsoring research and sharing results.

Ryan appointed a separate task force to deal with tax reform. We’re nevertheless treated to a rehash of the now-familiar claim that safety net benefits discourage work because recipients lose them as they earn more.

We’ve little evidence that they actually respond to the so-called cliffs by working less — or for less money — than they could. Perhaps they know that they’d almost always do better by working and earning what they can.

Be that as it may, the task force has only two general solutions. One would increase the Earned Income Tax Credit. For whom and how it doesn’t say.

The other solution — yet again — is more state flexibility. This supposedly would enable states to tailor benefits packages so that no one lost more than they gained by working.

Most, as the report acknowledges, don’t lose — at least until they’re earning quite a bit. That’s feature, not a bug, of course, in programs intended to help low-income people meet their basic needs. But it’s another dagger to thrust at the safety net.

Bottom line for me is that there isn’t much there there — to borrow from Gertrude Stein. Not, at least, much there there for us who’ve paid any attention to what House Republicans — Ryan in particular — have proposed and tried to justify ever since they gained a majority.

 

 

 

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