Paul Ryan's Superficial Critique of Federal Poverty Programs

| Mon Mar. 3, 2014 6:46 PM EST
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) at the 2012 Republican National Convention

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), chairman of the House budget committee, has apparently decided that by pretending to volunteer in a soup kitchen during the 2012 presidential campaign he didn't do enough to prove he's serious about anti-poverty policy. So he and his aides spent about a year examining federal anti-poverty programs and the congressman issued a report on their findings. The study, heralded in the Washington Post as a document likely to inform the GOP budget proposal expected later this month, is hefty, weighing in at more than 200 pages. It seems designed to bolster Ryan, a possible contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, as his party's top dog on policy. But as any student who's padded a paper knows, length doesn't equal depth. And in this case, Ryan's report is essentially an overview of existing federal poverty policies, itemized with a few citations to some research indicating how well they may or may not work. It's a little like Federal Poverty Programs for Dummies, without any policy alternatives to be found. Instead, the report relies on cherry-picked data points to justify slashing entitlements. 

Take the report's description of the Child Care and Development Fund, a federal program that provides a miniscule amount of money to help low-income people afford child care so they can go to work. On the work part, Ryan seems to approve. He notes that data show that single mothers who get a childcare subsidy are—surprise!—more likely to go to work or go back to school. However, the data show that the childcare subsidy also encourages married women to go to work, and here, it's clear, the GOP does not approve. The report suggests that when poor, married women get jobs thanks to the childcare benefit, their kids get totally neglected. Not only that, it asserts that such programs can cause "lower-quality parental relationships." Of course, the the kids of single moms are also supposedly harmed by the subsidy, according to the report, which warns that childcare subsidies are related to increased health and behavioral problems in children, poor school performance—and it makes them fat.

It's hardly a sophisticated analysis of the impact of childcare subsidies on poor families that might come from a real investigation of a federal poverty program—there are no voices from actual program users—but given the source, that's no surprise. Ryan has been trying to convince the public for a while now that he really cares about the poor, and that, driven by his Catholic faith, he's genuinely interested in trying to tackle entrenched poverty. But the proposals he's offered up in the past—big budget cuts to poverty programs, block-granting Medicaid—have almost universally promised to make the suffering of the poor much worse, not better. His anti-poverty proposals have been so severe that he even earned the wrath of the conservative US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which found his ideas in direct conflict with the church's teachings on social justice.

In his latest offering on the subject of poverty, Ryan does champion a few federal programs, namely the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. That's the modern version of the old cash entitlement system for low-income single moms that was "reformed" in 1996 by turning federal assistance money over to the states to administer. The welfare reform bill made it much more difficult for low-income families to access the safety net by putting sharp limits on benefits and imposing stiff work requirements as a condition of receiving help. The Ryan report credits the 1996 welfare reform bill with bringing down child poverty rates and increasing workforce participation rates of single mothers, at least up until 2001, when poverty rates started to spike again. But again, he's writing in a vacuum: The report fails to mention that the main reason for the big drop in poverty and employment rates during that time was a major economic boom that by 2000 had brought the unemployment rate down to 4.0 percent, one of the lowest rates in recorded history, which made it a lot easier for welfare moms to find work.

In addition, even as Ryan champions welfare reform as a poverty killer, he fails to mention that though some measures of poverty went down after the welfare reform law was passed in 1996, the number of households living in deep poverty—on less than $2 per day—has more than doubled since then. So has welfare reform really alleviated poverty? It's complicated. One thing it did do, however, was slash the amount of federal money spent on the program. The welfare budget hasn't increased since 1996, meaning that the $16 billion program has lost a third of its value thanks to inflation.

Meanwhile, the report blames Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the federal disability program that's recently become a favorite target of GOP budget hawks, for preventing people from joining the workforce. It cites a decade-old report suggesting that the program reduces the labor supply—but only of people between the ages of 60 and 64. The Ryan report contends that the program is full of scammers, particularly the parents of disabled children who have an incentive to keep them out of the workforce to keep the disability checks flowing. It claims that SSI permanently prevents children who receive disability payments from joining the workforce after they hit 18, without considering the possibility that these people are on SSI because they're actually disabled and can't work, even if they want to. And critically, Ryan doesn't explain how anyone gets by on $535 a month, the average monthly SSI payment, or how that teeny bit of government money would be preferable to taking even a minimum-wage job.

These are fairly small oversights compared to the report's biggest and most obvious omission, namely any discussion of the current economy and its relationship to poverty. Even as it knocks various poverty programs for discouraging labor force participation, Ryan's study fails to mention the single biggest reason people don't work: not enough jobs. Today, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (which Ryan cites with some regularity in his report), if every last job available in this country were filled tomorrow with an unemployed worker, three out of every five unemployed people would still be out of work.

Without acknowledging this basic economic fact, Ryan's superficial review of federal poverty programs looks suspiciously like a move to help his party justify big cuts to social welfare programs. It doesn't offer any new ideas that might improve programs to help the poor. It's a cheat sheet for GOP budget cutters looking for easy targets.