Congressman Paul Ryan's (R - Wisc.) new vision for how the Republican Party will address poverty in the United States is facing its strongest criticism from key people in the debate: the poor themselves and those who advocate on their behalf.
With inequality and financial hardship constituting top concerns among the U.S. public, Ryan appears to be taking on a populist, anti-poverty tone as he ascends to the leadership of the GOP. But economic justice advocates warn that Ryan's re-branded message masks the same old policies that attack the already-beleaguered safety nets for society's most vulnerable and dispossessed.
In a speech to the right-wing American Enterprise Institute delivered Thursday, Ryan unrolled a sweeping proposal for restructuring social services at a national level. The centerpiece is the "Opportunity Grant," which would consolidate nearly every key federal anti-poverty program—including food stamps and housing vouchers—into a single pool of money. That sum would then be handed to states that opt into a pilot program, effectively shifting the distribution of social services out of federal hands.
States would be tasked with delivering social services in partnership with what Ryan calls, "community groups"—a category that would include the for-profit sector. "The state welfare agency can’t be the only game in town," said Ryan. "People must have at least one other option, whether it’s a non-profit, a for-profit, what have you."
John Nichols, writing for the Nation, slammed Ryan's 're-branding' and 'faux populist' plan as a rehashing of "decades-old schemes to scale back anti-poverty initiatives and regulatory protections for low-income Americans." He argues that Ryan's approach "would allow Republican governors who have already shown a penchant for undermining healthcare, food-stamp and education initiatives the 'flexibility to do even more harm."
In Ryan's proposal, low-income people would meet with case managers to develop "opportunity plans"—a mix of programs, financial advice, and goal-setting, with a heavy emphasis on employment and "hard work." Under Ryan's proposal, these plans would be contractually binding, and failure to meet benchmarks would result in punishment, including potential reduction of benefits.
Ryan championed the plan as a "flexible" and collaborative alternative to "fragmented and formulaic" federal aid. "My thinking is, listen to the 'boots on the ground'—the local leaders who are changing the status quo. Let them try unique and innovative ideas with a proven track record," he said. According to Ryan, we need this legislation because, "Too many families are working harder and harder to get ahead, and yet they’re falling further and further behind."
But anti-poverty campaigners warn that beneath Ryan's claims to represent the interests of the poor and working classes lies a dangerous proposal that would gut and privatize the scant social programs that exist.
While Ryan claimed that the proposal is "budget neutral," many suspect it will open the door to further cuts to vital services. Chef and food activist Tom Colicchio argues in a statement curated by Talk Poverty, an organization aimed at reducing poverty in America, that recent history shows that the consolidation of public programs into block grants leads to the erosion of federal backing, and therefore, services.
When Congressman Paul Ryan talks about consolidating means-tested programs like food stamps, child care, welfare and housing into a single grant, he’s talking about a block grant. And that’s something we already know all too much about.
The TANF block grant created in 1996 made cash assistance much harder to obtain. In 1996, about 68 percent of families with children living in poverty were able to get TANF cash assistance. Now about 25 percent can get it. Plus, the block grant is still funded at 1996 levels so cash benefits have decreased dramatically in terms of their real purchasing power.
Tianna Gaines-Turner, a member of Witnesses to Hunger, argues that Ryan's plan does not venture into bold new territory, but is reminiscent of welfare reform in 1996, through its emphasis on the "incorporation of work into the safety net." Gaines-Turner argues, "[F]amilies are working. We don’t need to be placed in more work programs, we need our jobs to pay living wages, and to offer family-oriented policies like paid sick and paid family leave."
"My family does not struggle because we lack work ethic, which Paul Ryan’s new plan implies is the underlying cause of poverty in America," said Laffon Brelland, Jr., a Junior Writing Fellow at the Center for Community Change. " My family struggles because of poverty wages, which Ryan’s plan does nothing to rectify."
Robert Greenstein, writing for the Center on Budget and Policy priorities, notes, "All ten programs other than SNAP that would merge into the block grant serve only small percentages of those eligible, and federal funding for them (other than low-income rental assistance programs) is comparatively modest... this means that if some people receive more services under the proposal, as Chairman Ryan envisions, those services will likely be paid for by cutting assistance that helps poor families put food on the table or a roof over their head."
Melissa Boteach and Rebecca Vallas, writing for the Center for American Progress, argue that Ryan's own track records exposes the emptiness of his tough talk on poverty:
For the past four years, Rep. Ryan has set forth budgets that get approximately two-thirds of their cuts from programs that help low- and moderate-income families. His most recent iteration, released in April 2014, would turn Medicare into a voucher, cause more than 40 million people to lose their health care coverage, kick up to 10 million people off of nutrition assistance, and starve the part of the budget that funds education, child care, the Head Start program, worker training, and housing. These savings would go toward financing new tax cuts primarily for millionaires and large corporations.