Paul Ryan’s plan to fight poverty would keep millions in poverty

by Reverend Doug Mork

Speaker Paul Ryan pitches “A Better Way” in his weekly YouTube address.

This week, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan unveiled the first in a series of policy papers detailing the House Republican agenda ahead of the November elections. While the proposal is admirable in its stated aim to lift millions of people out of poverty, the plan (herein referred to as the “Ryan Plan”) falls far short on meaningful solutions and entirely misses the mark on what the paper calls the “root causes of poverty.”

What’s clear from even a cursory glance is that the 35-page Ryan Plan is built on the same debunked framework as the “Path to Prosperity” economic blueprints of 2012 and 2013, of which Paul Ryan was the lead author. The various iterations of the Path to Prosperity were founded on right-wing ideology that claims that the social safety net doesn’t work, that people in poverty are somehow cheating the system, and that statehouses across the nation are the more appropriate venue for shaping economic policy to lift the poor out of poverty.

This week’s plan is no different.

This newest Ryan Plan would shred the social safety net while failing to offer any meaningful solutions that would significantly reduce poverty in the United States.

The Ryan Plan claims it would “repair” the safety net and “improve the skills and knowledge of our workforce.” At face value, these goals are certainly consistent with the values of Interfaith Worker Justice. We agree that the safety net needs to reach more people in need and that education and skills training are vital elements to lifting people out of poverty.

Unfortunately, the Ryan Plan would achieve precisely the opposite of these stated goals, keeping millions of people in poverty and removing existing opportunities to advance up the economic ladder.

“Welfare reform”

“Welfare reform,” long used as code for the dismantling of social programs that protect those in poverty, is a cornerstone of the Ryan Plan.

Like past economic proposals authored by Speaker Ryan, the latest Ryan Plan argues for broad structural changes to the social safety net based on tired, debunked tropes about the work ethic of people in poverty and the ability of the federal government to effectively manage assistance programs.

For instance, the Ryan Plan claims that the 1996 “welfare reform,” formally known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), was the direct cause of an increase in the workforce among single mothers and a substantial decrease in poverty among African-American households.

Yet this claim ignores the robust economic growth of the late 1990s and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which most economists recognize as the key driver of job creation and reduction of poverty of the era. Despite the claims of the Ryan Plan, “welfare reform” didn’t lift people out of poverty or drive job growth, a good economy and the expansion of other safety net programs did.

Not only does the Ryan Plan greatly exaggerate the success of TANF, but using that flawed logic, it recommends tying Housing and Urban Development (HUD) subsidies that help put a roof over the head of millions of people to TANF eligibility. Given twenty years of data showing that TANF often fails to reach far too many of those people most in need, this proposal could create a massive housing crisis overnight.

In another argument at odds with reality, the Ryan Plan focuses on work requirements for able-bodied adults without children to receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps. What the Ryan Plan fails to mention is that strict work requirements already exist for that precise population. The Ryan Plan does not explain how piling on work requirements where they already exist will somehow make it easier for a person to find work.

What’s more, there is scant evidence that work mandates are effective at all, especially for those individuals with major barriers to work. However, there is plenty of data showing what is effective in lifting people out of poverty and into the workforce: namely, volunteer opportunities, skills trainings, and other job-specific education.

Unfortunately, it seems that Speaker Ryan is more interested in blaming those in poverty for their plight, as opposed to embracing policies that have proven effective to getting people back into the workforce.

The elephants in the room

If Paul Ryan and the House Republicans are serious about lifting millions of people out of poverty, the Ryan Plan would focus more on building up services instead of tearing them down. But time and again, whether its aim is early childhood education, higher education, or job training, the Ryan Plan boils down to one key strategy: turn over the keys for social programs to the states while cutting federal spending for safety net programs across the board.

In such a framework, it becomes clear that the goal of the Ryan Plan is to satisfy the same old tired Republican adage that government doesn’t work and private institutions are best suited to handle the deeply complex issues facing the poor in the United States.

Nowhere does the Ryan Plan mention some of the more obvious solutions to alleviating poverty in America.

There’s not a single mention of the minimum wage and no examination of how more disposable income in the hands of working people could create an engine of economic growth similar to what we saw in the 1990s.

There is no mention of wage theft, lack of pay stub transparency, the broken immigration system or any of the other structural mechanisms that keep people in poverty and prevent them from climbing up the economic ladder.

There is no acknowledgment of the colossal problem of income inequality or the wage gap that drives down wages for women and people of color.

There is no attempt to address the ongoing housing crisis that still has millions of American homeowners underwater and millions more homeless as a result of the Great Recession.

No reasonable person can take seriously an plan to end poverty that does not touch on a single of these cornerstone issues of modern-day poverty.

But then, it’s clear that the Ryan Plan isn’t a serious attempt to lift millions out of poverty. Like past Ryan plans, the true goal of this proposal remains the same: shred the fabric of the social safety net. Blame the poor for their plight. Dismantle government programs in the name of fiscal responsibility.

The millions of people struggling every day in poverty deserve a more honest approach to address this crisis, and one that is more inline with the values of our nation to care for those who have the least among us.

Paul Ryan calls his plan “A Better Way.” It’s the wrong way.

The Reverend Doug Mork is the Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice.