Paul Ryan’s Budget and His Plan for Poverty Don’t Mesh


Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Chairman of the House Budget Committee, presents his budget plan during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 12, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
April 30, 2014, 8 a.m.

The term “com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ism” is iden­ti­fied with George W. Bush, but the concept really is owed to the late Jack Kemp, the Re­pub­lic­an “happy war­ri­or.” To know Kemp was to love him, wheth­er you agreed with his sup­ply-side ideo­logy or not. Kemp genu­inely, deeply cared about the poor and op­pressed, and he un­der­stood the spe­cial chal­lenges fa­cing minor­it­ies, es­pe­cially Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. He sought ways to ease their plight through the free-mar­ket sys­tem but with a clear un­der­stand­ing that gov­ern­ment had a sub­stan­tial role to play in provid­ing a safety net for those who could not care for them­selves or who were be­set by dif­fi­culties not of their own mak­ing.

I doubt that Kemp would have ap­pre­ci­ated Mitt Rom­ney’s dis­cus­sions of the 47 per­cent who are takers (es­pe­cially since that in­cludes re­tir­ees get­ting So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care, the dis­abled, and the work­ing poor who pay payroll taxes but not in­come taxes — in large part be­cause of the Earned In­come Tax Cred­it).

Com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ism is com­ing back, prod­ded in part by Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute Pres­id­ent Ar­thur Brooks’s strong push for con­ser­vat­ives to re­cog­nize that they should fo­cus less on the prob­lems of the rich and more on the prob­lems of the poor, and should em­phas­ize the im­port­ance and le­git­im­acy of a safety net as a pre­requis­ite for craft­ing con­ser­vat­ive policies to em­power the poor.

Brooks’s rhet­or­ic and fo­cus have been em­braced by many key Re­pub­lic­ans, none more pas­sion­ately and vis­ibly than House Budget Chair­man Paul Ry­an. Ry­an vis­ited urb­an cen­ters of poverty as the vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee in 2012, and he has em­barked on an ex­ten­ded tour of such areas since that elec­tion. A laud­at­ory re­cent pro­file of Ry­an by Buzzfeed‘s McKay Cop­pins de­scribes some of those vis­its. Cop­pins’s piece has been ripped by many lib­er­als, as has Ry­an him­self in re­cent days. Ry­an’s ded­ic­a­tion to find­ing con­ser­vat­ive solu­tions to the prob­lem of per­sist­ent poverty took a hit for his clumsy com­ments about patho­lo­gies in the in­ner city, which many people take as a code term for areas of minor­it­ies.

I know Ry­an, and I’m sure that his prob­lem was ham-handed lan­guage, not ra­cial bi­as. And I also be­lieve that he genu­inely wants to find ways to re­lieve poverty and help people move up. But Cop­pins in his piece noted that Ry­an’s re­cent budget was in dir­ect ten­sion with Ry­an’s goal of con­struct­ing policies to help the poor. Ry­an said, “I’ve got two roles. I’m chair­man of the House Budget Com­mit­tee rep­res­ent­ing my con­fer­ence … and I’m a House mem­ber rep­res­ent­ing Wis­con­sin do­ing my own thing. I can’t speak for every­body and put my stuff in their budget. My work on poverty is a sep­ar­ate thing.”

Therein lies the prob­lem. There are and can be con­ser­vat­ive ways to ap­proach job­less­ness, so­cial dys­func­tion, and poverty — in­clud­ing things that many Demo­crats and lib­er­als could em­brace. That has happened be­fore, with, for ex­ample, the Earned In­come Tax Cred­it, a con­ser­vat­ive idea to en­able the work­ing poor to have a chance to come close to a liv­ing wage without put­ting all the bur­den on em­ploy­ers. It could hap­pen now through a re­vamp­ing of tax in­cent­ives and dis­in­cent­ives for work­ing fam­il­ies, where now if a second per­son in a fam­ily with chil­dren wants to work, the mar­gin­al tax rate can ap­proach 90 per­cent or more. With the cost of child care that comes when two par­ents work, that can mean an ef­fect­ive tax rate on work of more than 100 per­cent. And the idea of rerout­ing some gov­ern­ment funds now used to fin­ance pro­grams run by gov­ern­ment agen­cies to those run through com­munit­ies and private or­gan­iz­a­tions is a sound one.

It may well be that over time, hav­ing more pro­grams run by com­munity groups (many already are, of course) will not only help people more but cost tax­pay­ers less. But the fact is that provid­ing a safety net to those who need it costs money — in­clud­ing provid­ing hous­ing help; food stamps; and help with child care for single par­ents who work and two-par­ent house­holds where both work. And the fact is that the Ry­an budget is in dir­ect con­tra­dic­tion to the goals rep­res­en­ted by those policy op­tions. Ry­an moves to bal­ance the budget in 10 years with no ad­di­tion­al rev­en­ues, without any changes for the next 10 years in be­ne­fits for Medi­care or So­cial Se­cur­ity re­cip­i­ents, and with in­creases in mil­it­ary spend­ing. It re­peals the Af­ford­able Care Act — while keep­ing every dol­lar of the Medi­care cuts that are in the act. It cuts $732 bil­lion from Medi­caid, block-grant­ing the pro­gram; cuts food stamps (form­ally known as the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram) by $125 bil­lion; and cuts dis­cre­tion­ary do­mest­ic spend­ing, which in­cludes most of the ex­ist­ing pro­grams to al­le­vi­ate or ameli­or­ate poverty, by sev­er­al hun­dred bil­lions.

No mat­ter how cre­at­ive states would be in stream­lin­ing and re­form­ing Medi­caid, cuts of $732 bil­lion over 10 years would take away the health care safety net from mil­lions of people. And keep in mind that the single largest com­pon­ent of Medi­caid is long-term care for the eld­erly, many of them middle-class people who di­vested them­selves of their as­sets to qual­i­fy for nurs­ing-home as­sist­ance. These people, and their chil­dren, are voters, and states will be re­luct­ant to make them the vic­tims of the cuts. So even more of the bur­den will fall on the young­er poor.

There are bet­ter ways to im­ple­ment the food-stamp pro­gram, but cuts of $125 bil­lion — three times what House Re­pub­lic­ans de­man­ded, un­suc­cess­fully, in the last farm bill — will leave lots of Amer­ic­ans with real hun­ger.

Cop­pins notes, “Ry­an’s broad vis­ion for cur­ing Amer­ic­an poverty is one that con­ser­vat­ives have been cham­pi­on­ing for the last half-cen­tury, more or less. He ima­gines a di­verse net­work of loc­al churches, char­it­ies, and ser­vice or­gan­iz­a­tions do­ing much of the work the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment took on in the 20th cen­tury. Rather than sup­ply­ing job­less Amer­ic­ans with a nev­er-end­ing stream of un­em­ploy­ment checks, for ex­ample, Ry­an thinks the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should fun­nel re­sources to­ward com­munity-based work pro­grams.”

But the budget would cut those re­sources dra­mat­ic­ally. The al­tern­at­ive, pre­sum­ably, is that private char­ity will step in to fill the va­cu­um if gov­ern­ment draws back. But there is little reas­on to be­lieve that we will see a dra­mat­ic up­tick in char­it­able giv­ing un­der these cir­cum­stances. When hard eco­nom­ic times come, people hunker down and give a little less. Gov­ern­ment fund­ing for a safety net is a ne­ces­sity, and ma­jor-league cuts in every pro­gram that sup­ports a safety net will not work, even with in­nov­at­ive pro­grams to lift people out of poverty and not en­able them. A budget is a sym­bol of pri­or­it­ies. There will have to be very dif­fer­ent pri­or­it­ies to make the prom­ise of a con­ser­vat­ive ap­proach to the safety net and poverty ac­tu­ally feas­ible.

What We're Following See More »
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
1 days ago

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
1 days ago

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
1 days ago

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
1 days ago

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
22 hours ago

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.