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Rep. Paul Ryan Unveils Precursor to Push for Safety Net Slashing

New report from House Budget Committee puts forth broad critique of poverty-fighting programs

Andrea Germanos, staff writer

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/cc/flickr)

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan issued report on Monday criticizing a slew of government programs that have provided a safety net for millions of Americans.

Entitled The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later, the 204-page report looks at dozens of poverty-fighting programs including Medicaid, public housing, Supplemental Security Income and the National School Lunch Program, and comes a day before  President Obama is set to send his 2015 budget to Congress.

The Washington Post reports that

Ryan said the crux of the report is the conclusion that federal programs need to be entirely reimagined, with more than tweaks or axed appropriations, and that legislation this year should move toward broader solutions that solve what he thinks are structural weaknesses in how the government supports the poor. [...]

“This document is a precursor not only of our budget but of our larger project to introduce poverty reforms over the course of this year,” Ryan said.

On the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, the report states: "The academic literature suggests that SNAP reduces poverty — but not by much. The program also reduces labor - force participation somewhat."

As for Head Start, the report states that it is "failing." It says the National School Lunch Program contributes to obesity, and those enrolled in Medicaid have "poorer health" than those with any insurance at all.

Despite noting successes of 16 federal programs, Ryan's report characterizes the safety nets as a "poverty trap."

Melissa Boteach, Vice President of the Poverty and Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, denounced Ryan's report, stating that he "wrongly labeled the War on Poverty a failure—what has really failed is our nation’s economy, which is not producing enough living wage jobs to help people move into the middle class. Rep. Ryan’s review of safety net programs misses the fact that without the programs we have in place, America’s poverty rate would be nearly twice as high."

This is a point echoed by Sharon Parrott of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who recently  wrote:

Today’s safety net — which includes important programs and improvements both from the Johnson era and thereafter — cuts poverty nearly in half.  In 2012, it kept 41 million people, including 9 million children, out of poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). If government benefits are excluded, today’s poverty rate would be 29 percent under the SPM; with those benefits, the rate is 16 percent. Most analysts view the SPM as a better poverty measure than the “official” measure because it’s more comprehensive. The SPM counts not only cash income but, unlike the official measure, also non-cash and tax-based benefits, such as SNAP (food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and rental vouchers. Also unlike the official measure, it accounts for income and payroll taxes paid, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and child care expenses, and it adjusts the poverty line to reflect geographic differences in living costs.

Beyond reducing poverty, alleviating hardship, and giving millions of Americans access to health care, the safety net also generates other important achievements, with research showing that programs such as SNAP and the EITC have long-term positive educational and health benefits for children.

Boteach added that a path of austerity is no route to reducing poverty.

"As we consider reforms to strengthen the safety net and lift people out of poverty, solutions should first do no harm and not exacerbate poverty and inequality. We can adjust to the reality of more mothers working and changing family structure with policies such as high quality childcare and early childhood education, paid family leave, paid sick days, and closing the gender pay gap," Boteach stated.

Another key way she says could reduce poverty—raise the minimum wage.

"We could actually reduce the safety net spending that Rep. Ryan decries by raising the minimum wage so that fewer families are working full-time and still living in poverty."


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