Congressman Ryan Defends His Radical Budget Plan

July 15, 2011

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.


DC Council Finds Funds For TANF, But Poor Families Will Still Be Homeless

June 2, 2011

So DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown has managed to find $4.9 million for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

This will be used to temporarily halt the phase-out of cash benefits for families who’ve been in the program for more than five years. And a good thing too.

As a number of fellow bloggers have commented, it’s grossly unfair to penalize families for the program’s failures to provide suitable job training and other needed services.

Outrageously unfair to punish children because their parents haven’t been able to find sustained living wage work in our high-skill, recession-battered economy.

Also, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has argued, counterproductive because children who live in poverty are less likely to learn what our public schools aim to teach them. Push more of them into even deeper poverty and you set the stage for another generation of poor parents raising poor children.

On the other hand, the TANF program needs more than protection of current cash benefits. It needs enough funding to boost them.

They’ve remained flat for three years, which means they’ve lost value due to inflation. At this point, a family of three can get, at most, enough to put it somewhat below 28% of the very low federal poverty line.

Here’s one indicator of the results. According to the recently-released final figures from the District’s 2011 homeless count, 83% of literally homeless adults in families had some regular income. And the most common primary source was none other than TANF.

The Council, to its credit, put $17 million more into homeless services, thus making up for most of the shortfall. So at least those TANF families should be able to count on shelter this winter.

It also rejected, in principle, Mayor Gray’s plans to gut affordable housing programs.

As DCFPI reports, the Council’s version of the Budget Support Act, i.e., the legislation needed to implement the budget, allocates a portion of the additional revenues it hopes the Chief Financial Officer will project to restoring the $18 million shifted out of the Housing Production Trust Fund.

An additional $1.6 million of the hoped-for revenues would be used to preserve all affordable units subsidized with Local Rent Supplement Program funds for the homeless individuals and families sponsors intended to house.

The mayor’s proposed budget co-opted 175 of them to house people in the permanent supportive housing program. If all goes well, they’ll be housed without foreclosing opportunities for others.

But the first $22 million of new-found revenues will go to moving remaining expenses parked in the capital budget into the operating budget, where they belong.

Half of the remainder will be used to build up funds reserved for future contingencies. And the first $10.8 million of the rest will fund additional police force positions.

If my back-of-the-envelope calculations are right, the upcoming CFO projection will have to show more than $100 million more in expected revenues for both homeless services and affordable housing to be brought up to current funding levels.

Whatever the projection, the Council can still change its mind.

Council Chairman Brown and some of his colleagues reportedly still want to use some $13 million of the found funds to replace the just-passed tax on interest earned from out-of-state bonds.

This now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t approach to balancing the budget was in Brown’s version of the BSA. A bare majority of Councilmembers passed an amendment to block it.

But neither the amendment nor any other part of the BSA will be final until the Council votes again on June 14.

The Save Our Safety Net coalition suggests we stiffen the backbones of Councilmembers who voted for the bond tax amendment and try to move others into their camp.

A one-vote margin is never comfortable, especially when it includes at least one Councilmember who, let’s just say, has proved remarkably unpredictable.


Big Myths Used To Sell Food Stamp Block Grant

May 12, 2011

I might feel better about the House Republicans’ food stamp block grant if Congressman Paul Ryan, who wrote it, were up front about the motive. Not more supportive, mind you, but less concerned — and angry.

It’s clear that the food stamp block grant, like the Medicaid block grant, aims to slash federal safety net spending. Savings on food stamp benefits, plus state administrative support would total nearly 20% over the first 10 years.

The objective here is to pare back what we’ve come to view as our government’s mission — and to offset the revenues that will be lost by the proposed tax cut extensions and expansions.

But the budget plan doesn’t justify the food stamp program that way. It relies instead of three big myths.

The first is that the safety net is likely to become — if it hasn’t already — a “comfortable hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency.”

Complacency? Ryan and his colleagues obviously haven’t taken a food stamp challenge recently — or tried to support themselves and their families on an income well below the federal poverty line.

The second myth is that participation in the food stamp program is increasing at a “relentless and unsustainable” rate because states get more federal funds when they enroll people.

But, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, the recession accounts for most of the recent uptick in food stamp spending. Costs, as a share of the nation’s economic output, will fall as the job market improves — because that’s how most of our better safety net programs work.

The third myth is that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has been a roaring success and thus should be the model for other safety net programs.

The “proof” cited by the budget plan, as by other proponents of this view, is that the “reforms” it initiated cut caseloads dramatically during the first five years, while poverty rates also fell.

Lots of factors account for both, including a strong economy that made it relatively easy for TANF parents to find work — though often not long-term work at living wages.

But TANF caseloads didn’t expand when the economy cooled in the early 2000s. And, as Legal Momentum reports, only 6.6% more poor adults and children were added to the rolls during the first 19 months of the Great Recession.

That’s not because TANF is so successfully lifting poor families out of poverty. It’s because states have incentives to minimize their caseloads — and the benefits they provide. One of the biggest is the declining value of the federal block grant itself.

They’d have this same incentive if they got a fixed, inadequate sum for their food stamp programs, as they would under the House budget plan.

The plan warns that “the poor and vulnerable will undoubtedly be hardest hit” if the federal government experiences a debt crisis due to runaway spending because the “only recourse will be severe, across-the-board cuts.”

Seems the House Republicans have decided to preempt these hypothetical future cuts by making severe, targeted cuts to safety net programs like food stamps now.


House Republican Group Launches Broad Attack On “Welfare”

April 1, 2011

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has been due for reauthorization for two years now. Some members of the House Republican Study Committee have seized on the occasion to propose what they style as the next logical step forward in welfare reform.

It’s nothing of the sort. It’s actually a radical strategy to starve the entire range of programs we call the safety net — plus a covert attack on organized labor, immigrants and, as one might expect, women’s reproductive choices.

The misleadingly-titled Welfare Reform Act would cover all federal programs, except those designed specifically for veterans, that provide cash or equivalent assistance to low-income individuals and families.

In other words, it lumps into the “welfare” category not only TANF, but more than 70 other programs that serve diverse populations and needs — food stamps and free and reduced-price school meals, Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Security Income for severely disabled people, child care subsidies, housing and home energy assistance, job training and community development programs, Head Start and Title I (the main source of federal funds for public schools) ….

Well, you get the idea.

The Republican Study Committee claims the bill will reverse the course that has led to more Americans living in poverty and increasing dependence on government.

It would do nothing about the former, though it would certainly mean more desperate poverty for millions of Americans. It would, however, decrease dependence on government — as TANF already has — by denying benefits to people who need them.

This bill is so bad in so many ways that I’ll confine myself here to the over-arching framework.

It would impose a cap on total spending for means-tested programs as soon as the unemployment rate drops to 6.5%. The cap would be 2007 spending, with an adjustment for inflation up to the trigger year.

There’d be no further adjustment for inflation. No adjustment for increases in the number of people eligible for any of the programs. No provision for lifting or adjusting the cap when another recession drives the unemployment rate up again.

And no provision for the fact that Medicaid costs will rise faster and more steadily than the Consumer Price Index that would be used to adjust the cap.

They’ll rise faster for the foreseeable future for two reasons. First, because health care costs are ballooning. And second, because many more now-uninsured people will be covered by Medicaid when the health care reform act goes into full gear in 2014.

So inevitably Medicaid squeezes all the other programs. Or the squeeze becomes a justification for converting it into a flat-funded block grant and/or doing away with the health care reform act — assuming that neither of these has happened by the time the cap goes into effect.

RSC Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH) proclaims that “the most effective welfare benefit is the one that leads to a job.” But many of the programs that would shrink or die under the bill aren’t intended to help people get jobs.

Nor could they.

The bill has new problematic work requirements for adult food stamp recipients who are unemployed or under-employed. Some version of these could arguably move some recipients into somewhat better economic circumstances — though the TANF experience makes one doubt that many would earn enough to live much above the poverty level.

But what about children poor enough to get free school meals? SSI recipients, who can’t qualify for the benefit unless they’re too disabled to work? Low-income elderly people in nursing homes? People with advanced stages of HIV/AIDS whose lives depend on housing assistance?

In short, the bill is another proposal to cap federal spending in the guise of deficit reduction without doing the hard, politically-dangerous work of naming and quantifying the cuts.

Happily, it seems not to be going anywhere in its current form — as of this writing, no cosponsors except the original five.

But it could help shape the debate. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see pieces of the bill resurface in others that will have more traction.