Can Paul Ryan End Poverty?

John Moore/Getty Images

John Moore/Getty Images

Poverty and wage disparity in the United States has been an ongoing problem exacerbated by the recession, but hardly a new issue. Both sides of the aisle have been debating the best way to improve and reform those programs for a long time. For most Democrats these days, that means raising the minimum wage — a step President Barack Obama took for federal employees in an executive action earlier this year — but so far, a national wage increase has been turned down by Congress in favor of state legislatures taking steps individually.

Then, of course, there’s the welfare program. Generally, the GOP tends to hate welfare programs, and at times members of the far right have made comments to the effect that you almost wonder whether they hate those relying on said programs almost as much. For a slightly more poetic stance on welfare, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) discussed the welfare state during a filibuster in Congress below.

Partisanship aside, many Democrats would probably agree that the current welfare system has its flaws — is necessary, of course — but hardly perfect. Cue Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), potential 2016 presidential candidate — he’s keeping his options “open” — and generally rather moderate when it comes to poverty and welfare. When I say moderate, it’s important to explain what I mean. In rhetoric, he’s been pretty harshly critical of what he’d consider current dependence on welfare and how it dissuades improvement rather than opens opportunity. Some of his comments have even been called out as being racially targeted.

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” said Ryan in a radio interview with Bill Bennett — according to The New York Times. In a statement to The Nation, Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) fairly clarifies, “Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: black.” But when it comes to his newest plan, at least parts of it have a touch of purple worth looking at.

Representative Ryan agrees that a “strong safety net — both for those who can’t help themselves and for those who just need a helping hand” is necessary in America, in his speech to The American Enterprise Institute this week. Is welfare the answer? He predictably says no, but does have thoughts on solutions beyond simply demanding that welfare be removed. Some of these are lauded as theoretically rather appealing, but aren’t fully fleshed out by any means, and could be impractical upon closer examination. He calls for the end of the current welfare system — and all its programs — which is where things get a bit idealistic rather than realistic. By the way he describes it, the plethora of disjointed programs would be removed, and the leftover money would be used to creative a more flexible system of aid — the Opportunity Grant.

The Opportunity Grant would receive the same funding, but “would get more flexibility,” and would have the option of a state agency and local service, with an emphasis on getting jobs and the support to get where you eventually want to be. The program would be more locally and personally tailored, but would demand proof of success. “A neutral third party would keep tabs on each provider and their success rate … In my view, the federal government is the rearguard — it protects the supply lines. But the people on the ground — they’re the vanguard. They fight poverty on the front lines.”

Robert Greenstein from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues that this Opportunity Grant “would likely increase poverty and hardship, and is therefore ill-advised.” He argues that though Ryan claims to want a similar funding level, “that would be a practical impossibility” because removing food stamps, which is responsive to a change in demand, would leave states with a “sweeping block grant that gives each sate fixed funding for the year.” Greenstein’s argument addresses a number of other logistical concerns that Ryan’s concept, when applied, would be confronted with. Not least amongst them is his argument that administrative costs would leave less money for helping needy families. He argues that the new program would be more flexible, more tailored, more likely to hold people accountable, but Greenstein argues it would reduce the help provided.

Some of the less extreme and more specific suggestions are drawing more optimism from a wider crowd. Specifically, the earned income tax credit hike. It has strong enough potential to win over some bipartisan support even, but unfortunately Ryan’s plan calls for the funding of it to come from a removal of the current welfare programs. “We should make sure that in this country it always pays to work,” he argued, making a Democratic-supported program applicable to Republican principles as well. “I’d do that by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers. This is one of the few programs that have shown results,” he said, stating that the maximum credit would be doubled under his plan to $1,005, and the age applicable would be reduced to 21 years of age. “This is similar to what the President has proposed, but with one big difference: I wouldn’t raise taxes.”

That’s where the idea becomes problematic. Likely, Ryan could garner support for the Earned Income Tax Credit, but it’s also likely that the provisions he’d attach to the change would not be as easily passed, leading to yet another plan that can’t pass. While his “discussion draft,” as he calls it, may sound good in theory, complex bureaucratic systems — even on the localized and state level — get very unpredictable very quickly, and theory and reality become highly divergent in the end.

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