Rep. Paul Ryan begins his analysis of the federal government's antipoverty efforts by repeating President Lyndon Johnson's call for "total victory" in an "unconditional war on poverty" and suggests we "figure out why we have yet to achieve the 'total victory' Johnson predicted." He then proceeds to miss the big foe fighting against all of the weaponry that has been unleashed in this war.
That foe, writ large, is income inequality. Specifically, it is the set of economic actions and trends that during the past three decades have hollowed out the middle class and led to massive wealth concentration at the top 1 percent.
"Rising income inequality resulted in less of the benefits of economic growth going to those at the bottom," Sharon Parrott of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities wrote in her January analysis of the war on poverty. "Between 1964 and 2012, the share of national income going to the top 1 percent of households doubled, from 11 percent to 22 percent. The share of income going to the poorest fifth of households fell between 1979 (the earliest year for which comprehensive data are available) and 2012. If the benefits of economic growth had been more widely shared, poverty would be lower."
This fact is not even mentioned in Ryan's report, which was issued Monday by the House Budget Committee. He instead lines up the usual conservative scapegoats to explain the persistence of poverty, including "changes in family structure, changes in labor-market opportunities, and changes in broader demographics," and, of course, "federal policies."
Yes, federal policies have contributed to the fact that we are far, far short of "total victory" on the war on poverty, but not the policies that Ryan chooses to focus on. Conservative administrations from Reagan onward did nothing to slow the exodus of manufacturing jobs overseas, and in fact left in place a tax write-off for outsourcing expenses. Trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement signed by President Clinton destroyed even more jobs. Reagan also led an assault against labor unions, which in the 1960s and 1970s served as a much stronger check against corporate tendencies to hoard the gains of economic growth. Also under assault starting in earnest under government-is-the-problem Reagan were many of the government programs integral to the fight against poverty, such as federally funded jobs in distressed communities and community redevelopment programs.
Government social welfare programs do have flaws, either in design or in execution. A few of those flaws are serious. But even a perfectly woven safety net could not weather the headwinds created by the financialization of the American economy and the willful dismantling of the diverse ecosystem of jobs with good wages that supported a broad middle class.
Ryan's report "doesn’t say anything about low-wage work, which is the thing that has changed the most in the past 50 years: that people can be working and still be quite low income," said Elizabeth Lower-Basch of the Center for Law and Social Policy, an expert on public assistance programs.
But rather than address this, Ryan instead engages in a classic exercise of confusing correlation with causation. "A rapid increase in disability caseloads has reduced the labor force," he writes to illustrate how government aid programs operate as a disincentive to work. That statement ignores the fact that an overwhelming percentage of people claiming disability are people who want jobs but who can't find any in today's economy. It's the slow economy that has prompted discourage workers who can claim disability to do so as an act of survival.
"The single most important determinant of poverty is family structure," the report continues, a right-wing truism that misses the point. By brandishing the statistic that single women with children are more likely to be in poverty than married women, conservatives can finger-wag about women opting not to be married while they vote against such items as an equal pay bill that would assure women at least get the same wage a man would for the same job, or vote against measures that would enable that men in economically struggling communities can more easily find jobs with which they can support a family.
Truth is, much of the safety net – as Ryan concedes in parts of the program-by-program analysis in the report – has in fact been effective in helping to lift people out of poverty. But what has been missing in the war on poverty in the past 50 years has been a national full employment policy. When the national economy has been strong and producing a broad range of opportunities, it is easy to move people from welfare to self-sufficiency. That is why the Clinton welfare reform of the late 1990s initially seemed to work as promised – because the nation was approaching full employment.
Conservatives and progressives agree that the best anti-poverty program is a job. But conservatives are unwilling to tackle the fundamental structural problems that have led all of the national wealth to concentrate at the top, and are unwilling to support the series of policies – in trade, industrial policy, taxation, labor policy and in government spending priorities – that would lead to the rebuilding of a sustainable middle class.
Ryan wants to show that the Republican Party can do more than say "no" and act like boors when the topic of poverty comes up. But if he and his party cannot face the structural economic problems that his party either created or worsened in the last 30 years, his criticisms of the war on poverty are nothing more than cheap shots.