Paul Ryan Says Some Poverty Programs Are Hurting the Poor

 House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) questions Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf during a hearing in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill February 5, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
March 3, 2014, 6:26 a.m.

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.”

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