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The Three False Premises of the Ryan Poverty Plan

Congressman Paul Ryan's proposals to fight poverty make all the wrong assumptions and offer all the wrong policies. (Photo: AP/Steve Helber)

Paul Ryan has received a lot of attention for his recent poverty proposals. One wonders why, given that he has demonstrated time and again that he’s either unaware of the research on the topic, doesn’t understand it, or is intentionally misrepresenting it. In any case, he should be ignored.

But he’s Chair of the House Budget Committee, a leader within his party, and, whatever poverty scholars and more serious analysts might wish, he will still set many of the terms of the poverty policy debate in DC. He should be ignored, but he probably can’t be.

So what’s so bad about Paul Ryan’s thinking about poverty?

First, there’s nothing new in it. He offers block grants, cuts to programs, new work requirements, school vouchers, regulatory repeal, more money to faith-based initiatives, and privatizing social services, presenting us with little more than fresh marketing for tired ideas that — when tried in the past — made people’s lives worse, not better. Even the proposals that might seem promising are badly designed — like his way of expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit.  With the possible exception of his proposals to reduce some mandatory minimum sentences — which advocates of all stripes have been agitating for for decades — it’s old wine in old bottles.  Why should we treat it as newsworthy or innovative?

There’s a deeper problem with Ryan’s approach beyond the details of his proposal.  The foundation itself is rotten: the project is built upon three fatal, false premises.

The first assumption is that poverty is a complex problem — that we don’t know what works to reduce it, and that we need more data and more research.

This is wrong, and there are two easy ways to see that we could reduce poverty right now. First, we could look overseas. Every other rich democracy on the planet has a lower poverty rate than we do. They do it in all kinds of different ways, but most depend on generous, national, universal, programs — the exact opposite of what Ryan proposes. Can reducing poverty really be that hard if everyone else has figured it out?

We can also look to our own history. In 1959, official poverty rates among people over 65 were higher than for any other age group.  Today, they are lower than for any other age group. What happened? Social Security, which became more generous and nearly universal over time. It turns out that if you send people money every month — wait for it — they will be less poor.

The second assumption undergirding Ryan’s plan is that private or not-for-profit agencies are inherently more effective than public ones, and that state and local approaches do better than national ones — “devolution,” conservatives used to call it.

These particular claims, not borne out by the evidence, are rooted in the idea that long ago we had a golden age of private charity and civic volunteerism that provided effective, targeted aid to poor people — the kind of assistance that impersonal, distant government is incapable of delivering, the argument goes. This is pretty bad history, but its bad history with a pedigree.  Real historians, like Gertrude Himmelfarb and David Beito — and pretenders, like Marvin Olasky and Newt Gingrich — have made these kind of assertions in previous eras of “reform,” and even helped shape the harmful welfare policies of the Clinton years.

So Ryan is merely cribbing from the anti-welfare moralists of the 1980s, who were actually drawing on 19th century social thought. And those arguments were based in earlier British Poor Law philosophy that insisted that cash aid to poor people was only going to make them worse off. These are really old ideas that have been discredited by more than a century of increasingly sophisticated social science.

More simply: you can’t have much knowledge of US history if you think overall well-being was better in the 19th century before the creation of the modern American welfare state, weak though it may be. And it is comparatively weak. Yet when Ryan claims that US social welfare programs have failed, he never includes the fact that every effort to expand them — from the Progressive Era to the New Deal to the Great Society — has been met with determined opposition, disproportionately from wealthy, white, Southern men (once Democrats, they are now Republicans). This is especially true of efforts to improve the well-being of women and people of color. The extent to which social welfare programs come up short today — as with the 2009 Recovery Act or the 2010 Affordable Care Act, for example — is in no small part due to Ryan’s Party trying to make them fail.

The final false premise that frames Ryan’s proposal is that poor people need counseling and guidance; they are broken and in need of fixing.  As a consequence, the Ryan Plan is built on intrusive casework and the micro-management of poor families’ lives (limited government is rarely a priority where poor people and people of color are concerned). But too often caseworkers are an obstacle to be overcome, not a boon to those looking for help too get by (and I say that as a Professor of social work). And perhaps that’s really the purpose of Ryan’s plan: research going back at least to the early 1960s shows that the more professional caseworkers there are in a city, and the more they are involved in the provision of relief, the less likely people are to get material assistance.

For Ryan, poverty is a failure of character.  Just as ideologues have done for centuries, he wants the very government that he doesn’t trust — not even with basic service provision — to distinguish between the “deserving” and the “undeserving,” and to treat them accordingly, even in the absence of evidence that those categories represent any recognizable reality. What he envisions might as well be called the Office for the Reformation and Redemption of the Poor, and for all of his supposed efforts to listen to people living in poor communities, he never comes to realize the most simple truth. As one homeless man put it to me a few years ago, “I’m not stupid, I’m just poor. People don’t seem to get the difference.”

Paul Ryan’s power must be taken seriously. But his analysis of the causes of poverty and possible ways to reduce it should not be.

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Stephen Pimpare

Stephen Pimpare is author of A People’s History of Poverty in America, winner of the Michael Harrington Award, and is currently at work on Ghettoes, Tramps, and Welfare Queens: Down & Out on the Silver Screen. He teaches U.S. social policy and social welfare history at Columbia University and NYU.  You can follow him on Twitter @stephenpimpare

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