Congressman Ryan Renews War on the War on Poverty

August 7, 2013

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?


Let’s Recall Poverty Before the Safety Net

January 16, 2012

Huffington Post blogger Dan Morgan looks back nearly 50 years to tell us what poverty was like in his early reporting days.

This is an important, timely post because it reminds us of how poor people lived — and died — before the creation of today’s safety net.

Here in the District of Columbia, Morgan found “people living in basement apartments with dirt floors. Many were hungry, cold and short of coal for stoves. Some children were staying home because they had no shoes.”

Found a penniless woman with no coat to brave the cold weather for a trip to the social service agency. A blind man who made the trip, but was living with his nine children in an unheated place because the agency wouldn’t — or couldn’t — help him buy fuel.

In California, Morgan met a family that had lost three babies to dehydration while picking cotton there in 1936.

Still dreadful conditions 20 years later, he writes, when Michael Harrington chronicled farm worker poverty in that agriculture-rich state.

Morgan cites some evidence that safety net programs have lifted Americans out of poverty.

For example, the official poverty rate for seniors dropped from 28.5% in 1966 to 9% in 2010, at least partly because the federal government started indexing Social Security retirement benefits to cost-of-living increases.

Two other examples based on the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure. You can see them in this nice infographic from the Half in Ten campaign.

But Morgan’s main point is that safety net programs have changed the quality of poverty.

In other words, poor people, by and large, don’t suffer the same acute, life-threatening deprivations as they did before we began building the network of programs that make up today’s safety net.

Morgan focuses on what may be our biggest success — federal nutrition assistance programs.

“Clinical malnutrition,” he writes, “has given way to what government and private agencies call ‘food insecurity.'”

“Poor nutrition, not malnutrition is the biggest problem” now, says anti-hunger expert and advocate Joel Berg.

And indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 figures, children in only 1% of American households sometimes didn’t get enough to eat because their parents couldn’t afford to feed them.

WIC alone, Berg estimates, has prevented 200,000 babies from dying at birth.

“Progressives,” Morgan concludes, “should not be timid about extolling this achievement. And conservatives, above all, should welcome it” because safety net programs “enable millions more people to participate in the great American market,” e.g., by using food stamps to buy groceries, vouchers to pay rent to private landlords.

Many conservatives do appreciate the safety net, Morgan says. But, even by his own showing, many don’t.

For example, he quotes Newt Gingrich, whose latest tome notes that the 2009 poverty rate was about the same as when the War on Poverty began. “What did we get in return?” Newt asks — a rhetorical question if ever there was one.

We hear the same thing from the Republican Study Committee, which counts a large majority of House Republicans as members.

“Americans have spent around $16 trillion on means-tested welfare,”* it says. “Even with all these resources devoted to assistance for the poor, poverty is higher today than it was in the 1970s.”

This is the send-up for its broad-gauge attack on virtually the whole range of federal programs that constitute the safety net.

And RSC member Paul Ryan, who chairs the influential House Budget Committee, has personally championed radical safety net cuts.

As we head into the Fiscal Year 2013 budget season, both the administration and Congress will be looking for ways to reduce non-defense spending by $54.7 billion.

“The safety net will be a fat target,” Morgan warns.

Some major programs won’t get hit by the automatic cuts the failure of the Super Committee will trigger. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe, since Congress is perfectly free to change them — or the law that partly protects them.

Other programs are wide open, as the Congressional committees and subcommittees parcel out the mandated reductions.

We often focus on defects in the safety net — people who aren’t served, people who are but not sufficiently. This is still important.

But, taking a leaf out of Morgan’s book, I feel we urgently need to show how much good safety net programs do — and to revive the history of what poverty in America was like before them.

* This figure comes from the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation — a not always reliable source. The RSC is also indebted to the Foundation for its uniquely expansive definition of “welfare”.