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

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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.

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