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Here’s Paul Ryan’s New Plan to Fight Poverty

The GOP just released its new anti-poverty agenda. Is it any good?

By Dwyer Gunn


Paul Ryan. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, Paul Ryan released an anti-poverty agenda on behalf of House Republicans. The proposal is the first plank of Ryan’s “A Better Way” policy agenda, which he’s touted as an alternative legislative agenda to that put forth by the always-controversial Donald Trump. Ryan, along with a number of fellow House Republicans, unveiled the proposals at House of Help City of Hope, a non-profit organization that provides a variety of social services in Washington, D.C.’s poor Anacostia neighborhood.

The anti-poverty paper, which seeks to “chart a path forward for all Americans to achieve the American dream,” focuses primarily on identifying major barriers to mobility and painting a picture of what a GOP Fight on Poverty would look like. It’s light on concrete policy details — the Washington Post reported that GOP House members couldn’t agree on specifics—and most of the specifics that are present look as much like a Democrat’s worst nightmare as any previous Ryan proposal. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about the agenda is just how different it sounds from the traditional Republican discourse on poverty.

Here, for example, are a few sentences from Ryan’s plan that would be right at home in a Democratic anti-poverty agenda:

  • “Youth who enter the juvenile justice system often face challenges that run deeper than their unlawful behavior, such as substance abuse, mental health disorders, and a history of physical abuse or neglect…. A young person might need educational assistance or mental health treatment during detention, as well as additional help after he or she is released.”
  • “A high-quality education is one of the best paths to a brighter future, but students cannot learn and succeed in class if they are hungry or lack proper nutrition.”
  • “For many vulnerable children, their hunger needs do not end when the school day does … we must work to improve the ability of providers to reach these vulnerable children.”

Liberals have blasted the proposals as standard, re-packaged, Republican fare, and indeed there is plenty of classic conservative doctrine to be found in the Better Way anti-poverty agenda. While there’s no specific mention of block grants, that long-time favorite of the right, the proposals center heavily on granting more flexibility and control to state and local governments (which the report says should be accompanied by rigorous oversight and accountability). Fraud, government waste, duplicative programs, and the bloated federal bureaucracy are frequent targets as well — variants of the word “streamline” appear 13 times in the 35-page document. And a proposal to deregulate the financial industry and abolish the recently established fiduciary rule has already drawn sharp criticism from Elizabeth Warren (and outright laughter from Slate’s Jordan Weissmann).

And, of course, no conservative agenda on poverty and the American Dream would be complete without a discussion of the importance of work, and the ways in which government assistance allegedly disincentivizes it. The paper specifically recommends strengthening work requirements for recipients of government benefits like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, an emphasis which is a bit puzzling since both TANF and SNAP already have rigorous work requirements (and also already fail to provide sufficient workforce or job training slots to willing participants). In fact, most evidence suggests our social safety net has never been more pro-work, a trend which many economists argue has left behind the poorest of the poor and which caused problems during the Great Recession when there simply wasn’t enough work to be had.

But criticisms of the Ryan poverty agenda shouldn’t ignore the fact that the document correctly identifies and describes many of the structural causes of poverty — a weak public education system; a lack of effective, high-quality job training programs for a changing economy; disadvantages in early childhood that pile up ever-higher over the years — and acknowledges that there is a role for government (albeit more local government than Democrats would perhaps prefer) to play in solving these problems.

Criticisms of the Ryan poverty agenda shouldn’t ignore the fact that the document correctly identifies and describes many of the structural causes of poverty.

Ryan’s report suggests granting states more flexibility to administer summer feeding programs, but it doesn’t dispute the fact that the government should do something to make sure that poor kids don’t go hungry all summer long. It takes issue with the complicated web of programs that provide early childhood care and education, and with some of the quality issues that have plagued the federal childcare programs, but it doesn’t suggest that we eliminate federal investments in early childhood.

In the past, phrases like “consolidating and streamlining” and “returning power to the states” have often translated to dramatically slashing federal spending on programs that help the poor, and liberals fear that Ryan’s “new” proposals are really just a front for more of the same.

But at a recent Hamilton Project event, during a discussion of infrastructure investment, Larry Summers, one of the foremost liberal economists in the country, made an important point when he said that “[t]here will be a tendency in this room to emphasize the moving beyond the anti-government shibboleths but there is also a need to recognize that government can function in a variety of ways better and that there are a set of things that can be done to empower the private sector.”

Conservatives aren’t wrong when they complain about bloat and inefficiency in the federal government. It is ridiculous that it’s taken over four years to repair a bridge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that took 11 months to build in 1912. It’s tragic that the federal government funds many, many job-training and re-training programs that don’t seem do much of anything. And it really is absurd that we provide food assistance through 18 separate programs. Taken at face value, Ryan and the GOP’s new anti-poverty plan may be, at a minimum, a starting point for compromise.

Despite the glimmers of rhetorical hope and reasonableness, it’s somewhat astounding that a policy paper on poverty makes virtually no direct references to race, discrimination, or the well-documented widening racial income and wealth gaps. Thirty-eight percent of black children today live in poverty, compared to only 10 percent of white children. The typical white household had a net worth of $141,900 in 2013, compared to just $11,000 for the typical black household. There is an undeniable racial component of poverty in America and any plan to “chart a path forward for all Americans” that fails to account for that fact will fail spectacularly.