The 5 Myths That Weigh Down Paul Ryan’s Opportunity Proposal

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Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two blog posts responding to Paul Ryan’s Expanding Opportunity in America proposal, released last week.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) talks with Sue Martinek, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, during the Iowa Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner, Friday, April 11, 2014, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The visit is Ryan's second trip to Iowa since running as the GOP's 2012 vice presidential nominee. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

How Seriously Should We Take Ryan’s Poverty Plan?

How seriously would we take Colonel Sanders, if, out of the blue, he offered a comprehensive plan to aid chickens?

Not very.

So when House Budget Committee Chair Representative Paul Ryan – who has spent much of his career trying to take food, housing and health care away from people in poverty – offers what he claims is a comprehensive plan to reduce poverty in America, progressives can be forgiven if we take his proposals with more than a grain of salt. In fact, we take them with a ton of salt.

But even as we rightfully point out Ryan’s flaws as a messenger, it is vital that progressives seriously examine the substance of his message.
The harm Ryan’s past policies have inflicted on low-income Americans are more than theoretical. He led efforts that recently cut $5 billion dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. Half of SNAP recipients are children, and the vast majority of remaining recipients are seniors, working parents, people with disabilities and veterans. Yet, due to these cuts, the average family of three lost about $29 per month, or $319 over a year, in groceries. Some families lost far more. I met a woman putting herself through college while raising two children who told me, on the verge of tears, that she lost $45 food per month, which means she now has $540 less per year to feed herself and her children.

Ryan also supported an additional $40 billion in SNAP cuts in the Farm Bill this year, of which $8.7 billion in cuts were actually enacted into law.

Given that hungry children can’t learn, hungry workers can’t work and hungry seniors can’t stay independent, there is no question that poverty will increase as a result of the nutrition cuts supported by Ryan. It is no wonder that progressives challenge Ryan’s credibility as a poverty fighter.

But even as we rightfully point out Ryan’s flaws as a messenger, it is vital that progressives seriously examine the substance of his message. He has produced a 73-page report (PDF) on opportunity and poverty. Moreover, he is chair of the House Budget Committee, a former vice-presidential nominee of a major political party and perhaps a future presidential candidate.

Any leading political figure who claims to offer a substantive plan to address poverty deserves a serious hearing, and a serious response.

Ryan’s Few Good Ideas Are Weighted Down by Old, Destructive Poverty Myths

Ryan’s plan includes a few positive proposals, such as the proposed expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit to childless workers, which could receive bipartisan support. But because Ryan refuses to even consider having the wealthy in America pay their fair share of taxes, as was the case in the past, and because he has pledged that his anti-poverty proposal won’t add a penny to the federal deficit, he has proposed to pay for the EITC expansion by eliminating some existing low-income programs that work. This includes the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, which helps low-income women who are pregnant or who have small children obtain fresh produce at farmers’ markets.

Moreover, the entire Ryan poverty plan is doomed to failure because of its reliance on five discredited, right-wing poverty myths:

Myth #1: The War on Poverty was a failure, and large federal safety net programs don’t really work.

Reality #1: The War on Poverty slashed poverty in half and the safety net programs it created have greatly reduced the worst symptoms of poverty in America.

The Ryan report implies that the federal War on Poverty was a failure. But the reality is that between 1960 and 1973, due to both broad-based economic growth and increased social service spending, the US poverty rate was cut in half, and 16 million Americans climbed out of poverty and into the middle class. The truth is that we were winning the war on poverty until the nation stopped seriously fighting it.

The truth is that we were winning the war on poverty until the nation stopped seriously fighting it.
Moreover, the main thrust of most federal safety net programs is not, per se, to reduce poverty. The federal nutrition programs are meant primarily to reduce hunger, and they do. The federal housing programs are meant primarily to reduce homelessness, and they do. Medicaid is meant primarily to reduce disease, and it does. Tucked into a section on how the War on Poverty didn’t end poverty entirely, the Ryan report is sheepishly forced to admit, in one line: “The federal government has helped decrease material deprivation.” In other words, even Ryan admits that federal programs help reduce the pain of poverty.

These programs also reduce poverty itself. But the implication in the Ryan report and so many other right-wing arguments is that, because these programs haven’t wiped out poverty altogether, they are a failure. That’s absurd.

Myth #2: The only measure of the success of anti-poverty programs is whether they reduce the use of government programs.

Reality #2: A far better way to measure the success of anti-poverty programs is to assess whether they actually reduce poverty and improve the long-term economic and social well-being of communities, families and individuals.

The Ryan report states: “Our true measure of success is the number of people who don’t need government assistance.”

Ryan and so many on the right decry every government program except the many programs through which they personally benefit. It is relevant to note that Ryan himself collected federal social security payments for two years after his father died, and he has been on government payrolls virtually his entire adult life. Ryan would never say that a declining use of social security or government roads automatically equates to success. What he really means is that success is defined only when poor people need government less.

Moreover, defining the success of a program merely by how many fewer people use it makes as little sense as defining the success of a hospital by how many people leave it – without differentiating between how many people leave it cured, equally ill or dead. Likewise, if people are forced off a government program only to become destitute, hungry and homeless, than the caseload reduction should be deemed a failure.

Myth #3: Poverty can be solved without spending any more money.

Reality #3: While more money isn’t the only solution to poverty, it is clearly the top one.

Poverty is the one and only problem that is defined, first and foremost, by lack of money. Therefore, claiming you can solve poverty without money is like claiming you can solve drought without water.

Poverty is the one and only problem that is defined, first and foremost, by lack of money.
Given that conservatives usually claim that the only way to ensure a strong national defense is to keep throwing ever-more piles of cash at defense contractors, one would hope they could understand that perhaps more money might be needed to solve poverty.

Numerous studies prove that, when low-income people obtain more money (either through income supports, tax credits or food and housing support programs) they spend it mostly on basic necessities like housing, food, fuel, health care and education.

Myth #4: States fight major national problems such as poverty more effectively than the federal government.

Reality 4: The federal government is often more responsive, quicker and more capable – and less corrupt — than state and local governments.

The centerpiece of the Ryan plan is a pilot program which would allow states to scrap all the key federal poverty programs and instead combine them into one program run by states. Yet, there is not an iota of hard evidence that states, in aggregate, automatically run anti-poverty programs, or any programs, more effectively than the federal government.

If the federal government is truly as evil and ineffective as the right claims, why do even the most right-wing elected officials in the most right-wing states immediately demand that the federal government rush in to respond to local tornados or chemical plant explosions? When the chips are down, no one seriously argues that state or local governments alone – or faith based nonprofit groups alone – are bettered suited to respond to disasters than FEMA.

Moreover, the very reason Congress created federal safety net programs is that the states, on their own, were unable to solve large social problems.

It is telling that Ryan proposes that the federal government still pay for the safety net programs that he thinks should be run by states. Why? The dirty little secret is that the states in the South that are the most conservative and anti-Washington are the very states most likely to receive far more federal dollars than their residents pay in federal taxes. Out of the 20 states with the highest levels of SNAP participation as a percentage of their populations, 16 voted for Mitt Romney for president. These right-wing states couldn’t survive without massive federal anti-poverty funding.

Myth #5: Most poverty is long-term, multi-generational and caused by irresponsible personal behavior.

Reality #5: Most poverty in caused by inequality and low wages, not personal behavior.

Ryan’s plan differentiates between what it calls “situational poverty” and “generational poverty,” and implies that situational poverty is due to temporary factors mostly beyond someone’s control, and that generational poverty is long-term and caused mostly by irresponsible behavior. But since the plan includes no serious provisions to increase jobs or raise wages, its basic thrust is aimed at so-called generational poverty.

The plan claims that people in generational poverty lack “parenting skills” and “productive habits.” It also says individuals in poverty are “at risk of return to substance abuse,” as if it is self-evident that all people in long-term poverty previously engaged in substance abuse.

To correct such supposed anti-social behavior, the plan allows states to create “opportunity grants” to require low-income families to be held to “a contract outlining specific and measurable benchmarks for success.” The contract would include: benchmarks such as finding a job, enrolling in employment training, financial education classes, parenting classes and even meeting “new acquaintances outside the circle of poverty.” The agreement would also provide a “timeline” in which individuals are contractually obligated to meet benchmarks, receive bonuses for meeting benchmarks early and suffer “sanctions for breaking the terms of the contract.”

This would amount to massive government intrusion into the personal lives of citizens. Conservatives claim they don’t want government on their own backs, but when it comes to poor people, they want government on their backs, fronts, tops and bottoms.

Prior to the mid 1990s, the right claimed that most poverty was caused by high rates of welfare dependency, crack use, teenage pregnancy, and crime. But the 1996 Welfare Reform bill dramatically reduced cash assistance, and now fewer than 10 percent of Americans in poverty receive cash welfare. Nationwide, rates of crime, crack use and teenage pregnancy have plummeted. While poverty dipped in the late 1990s, it has soared since then as jobs disappeared and wages remained stagnant. The preponderance of evidence suggests that economics and inequality of wealth, not personal behavior and dependency, are the main causes of poverty.

The main reason for US hunger is poverty, and hunger and food security rates track closely with poverty rates.
The net worth of the 400 wealthiest Americans, according to Forbes, now tops two trillion dollars, which is more than four times the amount of the entire US budget deficit. Yet hunger and food insecurity now ravage 49 million of our neighbors. That equals one in six Americans, and represents a 58 percent increase in food insecurity since 1999.

The main reason for US hunger is poverty, and hunger and food security rates track closely with poverty rates. In 2012, fully 46.5 million Americans lived below the meager federal poverty line, $18,284 annually for a family of three. No other Western industrialized nation has even close to these high levels of food insecurity and poverty, even per capita.

Too many Americans remain unemployed or underemployed. US median family income in 2012 was $51,017, essentially the same level as in 2007, despite the soaring cost of living. Calculating for inflation, the median American family now has $6,554 less in income than in 2007.

The key factors that threaten the middle class – too few jobs and low wages, combined with soaring costs for housing, fuel, health care, education, food and child care – are the very same factors that are the main causes of US poverty.

While many assume that most families in poverty are impoverished for long, continuous periods of time, often over multiple generations, that is rarely the case. In the 36 months spanning the years 2009 to 2011, only 3.5 percent of US families were poor for each of those 36 months.

Most families who suffer from hunger and poverty do so sporadically, repeatedly climbing into, and then falling out of, the middle class. Likewise, many middle class Americans fall into poverty multiple times over a lifetime. Thus, from 2009 to 2011, nearly a third of all Americans experienced poverty for two or more months.

While the Ryans of the world think low-income people need more financial education to lift them out of poverty, the reality is that no amount of financial education will aid a family that pays more in basic living expenses than it earns in wages.

Read part two of this blog post »

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger
Joel Berg leads the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, which represents the more than 1,200 nonprofit soup kitchens and food pantries in New York City and the more than 1.5 million low-income New Yorkers who are food insecure. He is a senior fellow at the Center For American Progress and the author of the book All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?
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