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Compassionate Conservatism Rides Again with Paul Ryan

The bankrupt idea that you can save poor people by punishing them for their poverty has never worked... and never will

Talking a friendlier message but pitching a nefarious set of policy proposals, the Ryan "anti-poverty" plan, says Edelman, is mainly a shell game designed to hide the Republican Party's continued assault on society's most vulnerable. (Image: flickr / cc / donkeyhotey)

Paul Ryan has a new suit of clothes, but inside he’s still just Paul Ryan.  In fact the suit of clothes is made of porcupine quills—take a close look and it’ll poke you in the eye.  He’s now seeming sweet and sympathetic in wanting to do something about poverty, but what he’s proposing is mainly a shell game—now you see it, now you don’t.

Never mind that his budgets for the past four years—which would have cut $5 trillion dollars over 10 years, with 69 percent of the cuts coming in programs for low- and moderate-income people—are still on the table.  The latest Paul Ryan says he will turn well over $100 billion in federal programs into block grants once his state demonstrations prove successful.  And he says he won’t cut any of the programs in his block grant.  Will the real Paul Ryan please stand up?

Of course, the new and improved version of his proposals is still pretty lousy.  Block grant food stamps?  Terrible idea.  I guess he thinks it’s fine for Mississippi to say that the definition of hunger there isn’t the same as it is in Minnesota.  Make housing compete with child care by putting them both in the same block grant?  Why?  What we need is more investment in both.


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Block grants are not the friend of low-income people.  TANF, among other issues, is receiving the same $16.6 billion appropriation now as it had in 1996.  The Social Services Block Grant received $2.5 billion when it was enacted in the early 70s and is now getting $1.7 billion.   I guess there’s no reference to inflation in Paul Ryan’s instruction manual.

It’s time to get real.  There are two huge problems (and lots of smaller ones) that are making it difficult to reduce poverty right now.  One is the flood of low-work in our country—which results in 106 million people with incomes below twice the poverty line, below $39,000 for a family of three.  What does Paul Ryan propose to do about that?  Nothing. The other is the huge hole in our national safety net for the poorest among us—6 million people whose total income is from food stamps, which by itself is less than about $7,000 annually for a family of three.  Paul Ryan has a proposal there—put TANF, which is already almost nonexistent in most of the country, into a block grant along with food stamps, housing, child care, and God knows what else.  How does he think that will go?

We tried compassionate conservatism.  There was no there there then—and there still isn’t.

Peter Edelman

Peter Edelman teaches at Georgetown University Law Center and co-directs the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy and the author, most recently, of “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.” Edelman also served as Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, until he famously resigned in protest after Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform bill into law. Edelman was a passionate critic of the law, which he characterized as “a war on the poor of the United States” and “the worst thing” Bill Clinton had done during his presidency.

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