Paul Ryan’s Poverty Plan: The Good, the Bad, and the Paternalistic

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I know better than you. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

With New York Magazine’s official Paul Ryan beat reporter away on vacation, it falls to me to sort through the anti-poverty plan he released this morning. Here’s what I’ll say: There’s a lot for liberals to like in here, and there is a significant amount of evidentiary backing for some of his policy proposals. But there’s one reform at the heart of the plan that will make liberals very, very nervous. And there’s one so paternalistic that nobody will take the plan seriously.

Let’s take that last point first. Ryan proposes asking poor families to work with a single “provider” — a government agency or approved nonprofit or for-profit group — to build and enact a life plan, in exchange for cash assistance. (He plans on consolidating the funding streams from food stamps, welfare, and housing-assistance programs.) Here are the relevant bullet points:

  • A contract outlining specific and measurable benchmarks for success
  • A timeline for meeting these benchmarks
  • Sanctions for breaking the terms of the contract
  • Incentives for exceeding the terms of the contract
  • Time limits for remaining on cash assistance

Oh goodness, let’s run through the ways that this is condescending and wrongheaded.

First, it presupposes that the poor somehow want to be poor; that they don’t have the skills to plan and achieve and grow their way out of poverty. The truth is that many do have the skills, and what they lack are resources — say, enough money to pay for a decent daycare for your infant so you can work a full-time job, or cash to get your car fixed so you don’t have to take the bus to your overnight gig at Walmart. Ryan is not putting more resources on the table, as far as I can tell, and thus for many families he will not be addressing the root problem. 

Second, it isolates the poor. Middle-class families don’t need to justify and prostrate themselves for tax credits. Businesses aren’t required to submit an “action plan” to let the government know when they’ll stop sucking the oxygen provided by federal grant programs. The old don’t need to show receipts demonstrating their attendance at water aerobics in order to get Medicare. Nope, it’s just the poor who need to answer for their poverty. That strikes me as flatly wrong. 

Third, it threatens to punish the poorest and most unstable families for their poverty and instability. Let’s say you’re a single mom with five kids. You break your contract. You get “sanctioned” — a term normally used for money-launderers, terrorists, and narcotics traffickers, by the way. You suffer, and you fall deeper into poverty. But more to the point, your children suffer. (This is why it is a bad idea to make parents take drug tests in order to receive food stamps.)

Fourth, it does not address the core problem of a lack of jobs — or the problem of a lack of jobs paying a living wage and affording a middle-class lifestyle. What good is it to command that an impoverished teenager get a job if there is no job where he is living? Or if that job only provides poverty-level wages? Or if that job is only for 20 hours a week, not the 45 or 65 he wants to be working? Unemployment is a primary cause of poverty, but a lack of good jobs is a primary cause of unemployment.

Moving on to the part that should make the liberals queasy: block-granting. As in many prior proposals, Ryan suggests turning a number of federal programs into a “block grant” distributed to the states. In other words, states would get a given amount of money to administer a federal program as they saw fit, within certain guidelines. This is not on its face a bad thing; indeed, it could be a very good thing if it gave local areas more flexibility to address their specific needs. But often, “block-granting” is synonymous with “cutting” in Washington. Even if Ryan is currently proposing to keep funding at current levels, those programs, taken together, might be more vulnerable to budget reductions in the future.

Now, on to the good. Ryan proposes a number of common-sense reforms with broad bipartisan appeal: reducing licensing requirements, getting rid of kinks in anti-poverty programs and the tax code that create a disincentive for families to earn more; prison and sentencing reform, as well as recidivism reduction; supporting evidence-based policies; moving to a system that addresses poverty individually and comprehensively. I especially like the idea of providing more aid to the poor in the form of cash. (Money is more valuable when it’s fungible, and the poor can decide how best to use it.)

Could Ryan forge a bipartisan agreement on those latter proposals and pass them into law? Perhaps. But my guess is that the block-granting and contract-writing portion of the proposal would never fly. So, poor folks in America, no need to write out a checklist in order to get your food stamps, not yet.