Paul Ryan Gets It Backwards On Families and Poverty

Terrance Heath

In the introduction to “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later,” House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan identifies the “breakdown of the family” as the key cause of poverty.

It’s poverty that causes the “breakdown” of many families, not the other way around.

Ryan engages in “a classic exercise of confusing correlation with causation” that wouldn’t pass muster in a high school term paper when he claims that “single parenthood is a key correlate with poverty.” Ryan admits that “causality has not been definitively established,” but doesn’t let that stop him from claiming that “there’s much to be said for the changing nature of American families as it pertains to poverty and upward mobility.”

There is much to be said about poverty and the changing nature of American families, but Ryan gets it backwards. Poverty isn’t caused by the “breakdown of the family.” Poverty causes many families to break down, under the stresses of a fundamentally broken economy.

Paul Ryan’s claims about poverty and families reflect what Shawn Fremstad calls a “disconnect with the working class and real-world economic issues.” In Paul Ryan’s world, welfare programs are a “disincentive” to work. They encourage recipients to “depend on government” instead of working.

The grim reality is that millions of the families Ryan targets are among the working poor. As of 2011, some 10.4 million Americans were counted among the working poor, many of whom fell below the poverty line despite having jobs.

The biggest problem facing low-income families isn’t a “breakdown” from within,  but the external pressures of a a family un-friendly economy. In 2008, CAF published “The Stress Test: A State-by-State Assessment of America’s Economic Health and a Prescription for Change” that showed “trouble across the board” for low-income families.

Two of the biggest problems facing low-income families haven’t improved much since then.

  • Jobs: The 30-year slow bleed of manufacturing jobs from the American economy devastated low-income families, and disproportionately impacted African Americans, who were overrepresented in those jobs.
  • Wages: Stagnant and declining wages since the 1970s have made it harder for men to support families. The same has been increasingly true for women over the last decade.
  • Marriage doesn’t alter economic reality.

    • More than 7 million married adults (below age 65) in the U.S. live below the poverty line.
    • Among parents living below the poverty line, half are married.
    • Married parents with children are 56 percent more likely to live in poverty than married couples without kids.
    • Economic realities do impact marriage. A 2012 study by the Brooking Institute showed a strong correlation between income and marriage. The authors noted a steep decline in marriage among low-income Americans, and suggested that labor market changes (like stagnant or declining wages and shortage of good jobs with livable wages) are responsible for the drop in marriage rates — especially among men who have experienced the most adverse economic changes since the 1970s.

      Kristi Williams, associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University, agrees. After reviewing research on three decades of government programs designed to encourage marriage among low-income families, Williams concludes, “we found no physical or psychological advantages for the majority of adolescents born to a single mother whose mothers later married.”

      Ryan’s tone is one of concern for low-income Americans, but it merely disguises the GOP’s penchant for blaming the poor for their plight. Ryan alternately blames the government for “trapping” Americans in poverty, but behind his rhetoric is the same old conservative worldview, in which worldly success indicates moral strength and virtue, while poverty indicates moral weakness — which is to be punished, not rewarded.

      Ryan has become the GOP’s point-man, selling economic pain to the American public, with a smile and a dose of blue-eyed, Midwestern earnestness. Behind that smile, Ryan has authored a budget that would gut programs like Medicare and Medicaid, cut Social Security benefits, and virtually eliminate vital anti-poverty programs. This latest report is a prelude to another “Ryan Budget” that will again “punish the poor” with devastating cuts to anti-poverty programs, and reward the wealthy with even more tax cuts and loopholes.

      There are other effective ways to reduce poverty, but conservatives steadfastly oppose them. Wages is one example. Republicans refuse to consider increasing the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would lift more than one million people out of poverty almost immediately, and reduce food stamp spending by $46 billion over 10 years. That’s even more than House Republicans proposed cutting from food stamps — because fewer working, low-income families would need food stamps to put food on the table.

      In The New York Times, Eduardo Porter writes that, “Stripping moral condemnation out of social policy is essential to help dysfunctional families succeed.” If our goal is to help low-income families succeed and achieve better lives, Porter says that it’s time to stop punishing families for not conforming to some “platonic ideal,” and instead help and improve outcomes for children in all kinds of families. But that’s light-years ahead of Ryan and the GOP.

      Ryan rails against government for “trapping” Americans in poverty, but his new report reveals that many of the government programs he targets are quite effective at  reducing poverty. Ryan’s real problem with the “War on Poverty” and safety-net programs is that they have worked too well, “rewarding” the poor — with assistance that prevents many from sliding further into poverty, or lifts them out of it — instead of punishing them for being poor in the first place.

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