There is at least one fatal flaw in Rep. Paul Ryan's kinder, gentler version of how conservatives would change federal antipoverty programs: The proposal at the center of his vision, as are the conservatives in whose hands Ryan would entrust it, would be neither kind nor gentle.
The core of Ryan's latest proposal to remake the nation's safety net programs in a conservative mold, "Expanding Opportunity in America," would be to combine 11 major federal programs into a single block grant to the states. Those programs would include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (best known as "food stamps"), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families ("welfare"), several housing subsidy programs, child care assistance, low-income heating and weatherization assistance, aid to dislocated workers and the Community Development Block Grant.
His aims sound noble. There are a lot of community organizations that are making a difference in lifting people into economic self-sufficiency. But federal aid programs aren't integrated well and their rules don't always fit the real-world needs of people working to get out of an economic crisis, Ryan said. "My thinking is, listen to the 'boots on the ground'—the local leaders who are changing the status quo. Let them try unique and innovative ideas with a proven track record. And then test the results," he said.
But the block-grant approach has fundamental flaws. A 2014 analysis by the Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP, summarized the problems: "Block grants do not respond well to economic downturns like the recent Great Recession, thus leaving families, communities, and states without resources just when they need them most. They are ill-suited to supporting core national goals – such as ensuring that every American starts life healthy and well-nourished – but instead contribute to disparate life chances based on where a child is born. And, since there is no direct link between spending and need, Congressional appropriations for block grants tend to shrink over time."
Ryan's promise that the consolidation of these programs is not a cover for cutting the total federal spending on these programs is belied by Ryan's own spending proposals as the chairman of the House Budget Committee. The Coalition for Human Needs lists Ryan's promise as one of their "head smackers."
Ryan’s budgets, annually passed by the House for the past few years, would drastically cut most of the programs he would pool in this block grant. SNAP/food stamps is one of the programs in the proposed “Opportunity Grant” – his most recent budget slashed SNAP by $137 billion over 10 years. The other programs that could be added to this super-block grant include the nation’s biggest rental assistance programs, home heating assistance, and a job training program for dislocated workers. These programs require annual appropriations, and the Ryan budget proposed deep cuts to appropriations other than defense – about twice as deep as those that would be required if Congress lets new rounds of automatic (“sequestration”) cuts take place. So it is very hard to see how he could keep the promise that the lumped-together programs would get the same funding they do now if his own budget (approved by the House) were to become law.
Further, we only have to look to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act for a vision of what would likely go wrong if Ryan's vision were implemented. Earlier this week, The New York Times noted that red-state refusal to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid has widened disparities in access to health insurance and care. "Recent surveys show that those states that did expand [Medicaid] have significantly reduced their uninsured population. An Urban Institute survey found that the uninsurance rate among adults under 65 had declined by 6.1 percentage points in states that expanded, compared with only 1.7 percentage points in those that didn’t," the Times reported.
Ryan said that he formulated his latest plan based on visits with low-income people and the grassroots organizations that work with them. He clearly learned some positive lessons from his face-to-face conversations with people on the front lines of poverty. One of those lessons is his appreciation for the importance of the Earned Income Tax Credit, widely credited as an effective way to get cash into the hands of low-wage workers. Another is his understanding that low-income people need a set of services that work together to help them get back on their feet.
But, as the CLASP analysis points out, federal programs don't need radical restructuring in order to be made to work more effectively. Officials in at least six states under the Work Support Strategies initiative – Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and South Carolina – are integrating aid programs under their existing structure. All of these states "have discovered enormous opportunities to integrate their administration of these programs," the report said.
The biggest elements missing in Ryan's proposal are the things that would do the most to lift people out of poverty – steps toward creating a full-employment economy of living-wage jobs. Ryan talks of holding aid recipients to "contracts" that would require them to take steps toward getting jobs as a condition of their aid (and "sticks" for not meeting the terms of the contract), but says nothing about what should happen in an economy, like the one we have now, when there is above-average slack in the labor market and in which the number of unemployed people are still close to three times the number of jobs available. What he does say is that the money in his opportunity grant plan can only be spent on direct aid, "not roads, not bridges, no funny business."
But what Ryan dismisses as "funny business" has to be a key part of the agenda for lifting families out of poverty. A plan now to invest in bringing our public assets, such as our transportation network, schools, up to 21st century needs would create millions of good jobs. So would helping states replace the hundreds of thousands of teachers and other public workers laid off during the Great Recession.
Also, if Ryan had really been listening to the low-wage workers he encountered in his touring the country, he would have, on the fifth anniversary of the last time the federal minimum wage increased, to $7.25 an hour, that it is time to increase that wage. However noble it might be to expand tax credits for low-wage workers, that is a poor (and ultimately deeply problematic) substitute for paying working people a wage for full-time work that lifts them out of poverty.
A calculator newly posted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that if the minimum wage had merely kept pace with inflation since 1999, workers would have earned close to an additional $6.1 billion. If the minimum wage in 1999 had been raised to match its peak value in 1968, workers would have earned an additional $300.8 billion.
Ryan's fellow conservatives are deeply hostile to any moves that would address the ways the economy is rigged against working people and has moved wealth away from working people and into the hands of the ultra-rich. They also too often regard people in poverty as people who deserve their fate, and thus our aid to them should be begrudging at best. Those realities overshadow any efforts Ryan might make to paint himself as a "compassionate conservative." Ryan says he wants to have a conversation about how to address lingering poverty in America, but unfortunately we already know how far that conversation is going to go as long as right-wing extremists have a stranglehold on government.