Why Is Paul Ryan Attacking Poverty Programs? He Needs to Tell Us Loud and Clear.

| Wed Mar. 5, 2014 12:39 PM EST

Paul Ryan released a thick report on federal poverty programs earlier this week, and liberals were none too pleased with it. Over at CBPP, Sharon Parrott explains why: "It’s replete with misleading and selective presentations of data and research, which it uses to portray the safety net in a negative light.  It also omits key research and data that point in more positive directions." In fact, it's so bad that quite a few of the researchers who are name checked in Ryan's report have spoken out publicly to complain about how badly their work was misrepresented.

But we should rein in the criticism a bit, says the Economist's John Prideaux. He believes that Ryan's report really is useful and really could represent a change of direction for conservatives:

In fact there is not a single proposal to cut spending on federal anti-poverty programmes in there. What the report does do is document how fragmented the federal government’s poverty programmes are....Take the federal schemes to expand the supply of housing for people with low incomes. There is Public Housing, Moving to Work, Hope VI, Choice Neighborhoods, Rental Assistance Demonstration, Rental Housing Assistance, Rental Assistance Payment, the Housing Trust Fund, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, the Private Activity Bond Interest Exclusion, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program and the Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program. The programmes on the demand side, in other words that help people pay their rent, are almost as numerous.

....Most of the commentary on the budget committee’s report suggests that it is filled with the same stuff that Republicans have been peddling for ages. And to be sure it includes plenty of studies that are critical of food stamps, Head Start and Pell grants. But read the whole thing and you get the impression that there are House Republicans who understand that there is more to poverty reduction than getting the government out of the way. They should be braver about saying this.

I think this gets to the heart of the matter. Even conservatives—the more honest variety, anyway—will concede that liberals have plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Ryan's goals. His annual budget roadmaps have consistently relied on slashing spending for the poor, and Republicans in general have been consumed with cutting safety net spending for decades. It's perfectly natural to view a report that lambastes federal poverty programs as merely the first step in an effort to build support for cutting spending on those programs.

So how about if we see some of Prideaux's bravery before we bite on Ryan's proposals? Liberals should certainly be open to making safety net programs more efficient, and if that's Ryan's goal he'll find plenty of Democrats willing to work with him. But that all depends on knowing that this isn't just a Trojan Horse for deep cuts to spending on the poor.

So how about if we hear this from Ryan? How about if he says, plainly and clearly, that he wants to improve the efficiency of safety net programs, but wants to use the savings to help more people—or to help people in smarter ways—not as an excuse to slash spending or to fund more tax cuts for the wealthy? Really, that's the bare minimum necessary for liberals to suspend their skepticism, given Ryan's long history of trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.

This would require a genuine turnabout from Ryan, and it would require him to genuinely confront his tea party base with things they don't want to hear. And it would demonstrate that helping the poor really is his goal. But if he's not willing to do that, why should anyone on the left believe this report is anything other than the same old attack on the poor as moochers and idlers that's become practically a Republican mantra over the past few years?

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