Bigger Than Big Foot: Paul Ryan's Mythological Poverty Policies

"What's really at work here is the spirit of the Lord," would-be Vice President Paul Ryan said in a speech on poverty and upward mobility before conservative Ohioan churchgoers on Wednesday.

"What's really at work here is the spirit of the Lord," would-be Vice President Paul Ryan said in a speech on poverty and upward mobility before conservative Ohioan churchgoers on Wednesday. "And there is no end to the good that it can inspire."

But apparently there is an end--because it can't inspire anyone on the Republican ticket to deliver an honest speech about poverty.

Sure, Ryan and Governor Romney repeatedly recite the number of people living in poverty or needing food stamps, using the statistics as a bludgeon against President Obama's record. But beyond that? Bigfoot and Nessie got nothing on the myths these guys spin, and they are just about as fact-based.

"In this war on poverty, poverty is winning," Ryan declared.

Except that poverty would be twice what it is today--nearly 30 percent--were it not for the safety net Ryan objects to.

No one disagrees with the notion that ideally people would need no assistance, and that good jobs with family-supporting wages and health care benefits would be available for all. But we live in a country where 50 percent of the jobs pay less than $34,000 a year, and 25 percent of jobs pay less than the poverty line for a family of four (less than $23,000 annually).

"We're still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty," Ryan insisted.

In fact it's Ryan who is entirely focused on how much government spends on antipoverty measures--and wildly exaggerating those figures at that (read on). Advocates, researchers, and policymakers closely examine which programs are lifting people out of poverty, and which aren't. For example, we can see how effective unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), food stamps (SNAP), and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) have been in lifting millions of people above the poverty line. Just as we can see the ineffectiveness of cash assistance (TANF)--a block grant to states that Ryan touts as a model for what we should be doing with Medicaid and SNAP.

"President Clinton and the Congress recognized that it would be a good idea to give states more power to tailor welfare to the unique needs of their citizens," said Ryan. "Mitt Romney and I want to apply this idea to other anti-poverty programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps."

Ryan is alluding to the TANF program created under welfare reform in 1996, and he and the Republicans aren't alone in misleading the public about its effectiveness--many Democrats are complicit as well.

The fact is that for every 100 families with children in poverty, only twenty-seven now receive cash assistance--down from sixty-eight prior to welfare reform. The benefit level in most states is below 30 percent of the poverty line--less than about $5,400 for a family of three. Further, with states given wide discretion over eligibility and time limits--or even using TANF block grants to plug state budget holes--we now have fifty different systems in place. That means in Wyoming, about 4 percent of the state's poor families with children receive cash assistance. In Mississippi, it's approximately 10 percent. But in Washington State, for every 100 families with children in poverty, nearly 50 receive cash assistance. Just looking at the varying cash assistance programs makes it clear that this assertion by Ryan simply isn't true: "There's a consensus in this country about our fundamental obligations to society's most vulnerable. Those obligations are not what we're debating in politics."

Ryan also arguably whitewashes the history of welfare reform, or at best cherry-picks his intelligence. He attributed the employment successes in the immediate aftermath of welfare reform to the new legislation rather than to the booming economy of the mid-1990s, and doesn't look at the full sixteen years of the program to draw his conclusions.

"Instead of seeing increases in hunger and poverty, we saw welfare enrollment drop dramatically, as millions of our fellow citizens gained new lives of independence," Ryan said. "We saw child poverty rates fall over 20 percent in four years--and we saw employment for single mothers rise."

It's true that in those early years of unprecedented economic growth, some people were fortunate enough to rise above poverty through jobs, or jobs combined with assistance. But the lesson of the decade following welfare reform is that those who weren't able to find jobs fell into deep poverty--living below half the federal poverty line (less than $9,000 annually for a family of three today)--no longer able to get cash assistance that was left to the discretion of the states. In 2005--according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) analysis using the National Academy of Sciences recommended poverty measure--had the safety net been as effective as it was prior to welfare reform, there would have been 1.1 million children in deep poverty; instead there were 2.4 million. This trend has continued--the latest US Census Bureau data reveals 20.4 million people in deep poverty, including more than 15 million women and children. That's up from 12.6 million people in 2000--a 62 percent increase.

The TANF block grant is also funded at the same level as it was in 1996--it wasn't indexed for inflation--so it has lost about 30 percent of its value and reaches fewer people. In fact, during the recession--when we saw the greatest need for assistance since the Great Depression--TANF caseloads barely budged or even declined in some states. In contrast, food stamps rose from helping 26 million to 46 million people--responding to increased need just as the program was designed to do. As people return to work with decent wages, food stamp caseloads will decline. Finally, the improvements in child poverty rates that Ryan alluded to were lost with the recession--as were the early gains in single mother employment.

But facts be damned, Ryan offered up this assessment as to why people in poverty are struggling today: "Here's the problem: The welfare-reform mindset hasn't been applied with equal vigor across the spectrum of anti-poverty programs."

What would "the welfare reform mindset"--also known as the block grant--mean to Medicaid and food stamps?

According to the CBPP, Ryan's Medicaid plan calls for $810 billion in cuts, plus savings of $1.6 trillion achieved through repealing the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion and its subsidies to help low- and moderate-income people purchase health insurance. The Center for American Progress Action Fund writes that the cuts would cause 31 million Americans to lose access to health insurance over the next 10 years--predominantly children, seniors, people with disabilities, and the working poor. Ryan also proposes $134 billion in cuts to food stamps (SNAP), which according to the CBPP, would result in as many as 8 million to 10 million people being cut from the program. In all, the CBPP reports that Ryan would get at least 62 percent of his $5.3 trillion in nondefense budget cuts over ten years "from programs that serve people of limited means."

Ryan attempts to justify his drastic cuts through bogus assertions such as this one: "Total federal and state spending on means-tested programs came to more than one trillion dollars... For that amount of money, you could give every poor American a check for $22,000... We spend all that money attempting to fight poverty through government programs."

But we don't. Earlier this week, author and Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman took on that recycled conservative talking point.

He noted that nearly half of that money is spent on Medicaid "with the bulk going to pay hospitals and nursing homes and physicians." The $1 trillion figure also includes the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credits--which reward low-wage workers (including people above the poverty line) with refundable tax credits and have enjoyed longtime bipartisan support. These credits have also been linked to raising standardized test scores of children in low-income families and yet the Ryan-led House would let the expansion of the EITC and the CTC expire. Programs such as Head Start, community development programs, and child care "help low-income children grow up and find their way out of poverty," Edelman writes. Food stamps, housing vouchers, Pell grants, and job training are all responses "to the disastrous state of our labor market that is leaving millions of hard workers in poverty or close to it."

Ryan took issue with these kinds of government investments in families, saying, "The real debate is about whether they are best [made] by private groups, or by the government; by voluntary action, or by more taxes and coercive mandates from Washington." His vision is one of "churches and charities and friends and neighbors" making a difference in people's lives in lieu of current government investments. He shared some stories about people doing on-the-ground work in communities, trying to make a difference, "and the needy people who have encountered them feel a presence greater than just one compassionate soul."

Aside from his patronizing view of people living in poverty as "needy people," Ryan's sense of the scale at which NGOs and individuals can operate is completely skewed. Katie Wright, research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, writes, "Should cuts to supplemental nutrition assistance in the Ryan budget take effect, churches across America would need to come up with $50,000 each to make up the difference."

Fifteen years ago, labor economist Rebecca Blank made the point that replacing the $77 billion a year that the federal government spent on AFDC (TANF's predecessor), food stamps, and cash assistance to the elderly poor would require "every one of the 258,000 religious congregations (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise) that exist in this country to raise an additional $300,000 per year in all future years... and spend all of the increase on services for the poor. Alternatively, if this giving is done through private charitable organizations that serve the poor, it would require those groups to raise over seven times more in private donations than they currently receive."

But perhaps the thing that is most damning to the world according to Ryan is this: if indeed it is the safety net that is holding people back, shouldn't we see lower poverty rates in the states where the safety net gets out of the way? And yet consider the states with the worst child poverty rates: Mississippi, 32 percent; Louisiana, 29 percent; South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas--28 percent.... According to First Focus, "States with traditionally high overall rates of child poverty also tend to be states with lower levels of public spending on children... and also areas that collect a significant amount of state revenue in ways detrimental to lower-income families."

Here's the terrible, terrible thing about facts: they tend to get in the way of things we might otherwise like to believe in--like Bigfoot, Nessie, and Ryan's account of how the Spirit moves.

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