As President Obama and congressional Democrats make their fight for economic inequality a repetitive theme in this midterm election year, House Republicans led by Budget Committee Paul Ryan want to redefine what "compassionate" aid for the poor should mean.
The 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee released a report Monday that he says "takes stock" of the government's decades-old web of antipoverty efforts — launching what is to be a House Republican fiscal messaging focus this year on reforming welfare and social programs.
Titled " The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later," the Budget Committee report comes a day before President Obama's scheduled release of his fiscal 2015 spending plan. It also arrives just before Obama heads to Connecticut on Wednesday for a conference with Democratic governors to promote a minimum-wage hike, and during a time when the president and Democrats have been calling for an extension of long-term-unemployment benefits. Obama also has said he wants to expand Head Start, an early-education program for low-income children.
For Republicans, pushing the poverty debate in a different direction could be risky. It might help energize a GOP base. But it also could put off moderate and independent voters if they see these efforts as a mean-spirited offshoot of party extremists pushing their agenda. Ryan seems not to worry so much about the latter prospect.
"Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. Today, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, we are once again debating the best way to help the least among us," states the beginning of his committee report.
"Clearly, we can do better. We can rework these federal programs and help families in need lead lives of dignity," said Ryan, in a separate statement accompanying the 204-page report. "For too long, we have measured compassion by how much we spend instead of how many people get out of poverty."
House Republicans say they will release their own budget later this spring.
Ryan's report Monday provides a hint of what that budget might contain. The upshot is that the government spent $799 billion in 2012 on some 92 antipoverty programs. It says these programs form a "duplicative" and complex web that is both difficult to navigate, and even form "poverty traps."
In all, the report discusses eight areas of federal policy: cash aid; education and job training; energy; food aid; health care; housing; social services; and veterans affairs.
Despite these efforts, the report says, poverty (though there are a number of ways to measure that) is widespread. The report states that in 1965, the poverty rate was 17.3 percent, while in 2012, it was 15 percent.
"Over the past three years, 'deep poverty' has reached the highest level on record," the document states, adding that "about 21.8 percent of children live below the poverty line."
The report says the biggest cause of poverty is broken families.
"For all families, the poverty rate was 13.1 percent. But 34.2 percent of families headed by a single female were considered below poverty, and 22.8 percent of households composed of unrelated individuals were considered to be in poverty."
The report also claims that many of these antipoverty programs actually create a "poverty trap." Because they are generally means-tested — in which benefits decline as recipients make more money — poor families face very high implicit marginal tax rates, it states.
"The federal government effectively discourages them from making more money," the report says.
The report also takes a swipe at Head Start, an early-education program it states is "failing to prepare children for school." And it says Medicaid, which provides health care for low-income families, "increases the likelihood of receiving welfare benefits."
For their part, Democrats said they were unimpressed — and their response Monday underscored the risk Ryan and Republicans might be taking.
The Budget Committee's top Democrat, Chris Van Hollen, noted that Ryan did not reach across the political aisle to help come up with a bipartisan report. And he and other Democrats made sure to suggest that the report's tone was reminiscent of the infamous comment made by Ryan's presidential running mate, Mitt Romney, that suggested as much as 47 percent of the nation is dependent on the government.
"The GOP has never really given up on Mitt Romney's attack on the 47 percent," said Van Hollen.
"Whether it's saying that 47 percent of Americans are takers, or claiming that the social safety net is discouraging people from making more money, Republicans just don't get it," added Michael Czin, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. "Their plan is to block a minimum-wage increase, cut access to higher education, slash early-childhood programs, voucherize Medicare, and shred the social safety net — a safety net that lifted 45 million Americans out of poverty in 2012 alone."