How big a mess is Ryan’s report on poverty? Scholars say: Very big.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) during his 2012 vice-presidential campaign.
(Sara D. Davis/AP)

We’ve already passed a critical eye over the report on the War on Poverty issued by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), specifically its inaccurate and undeserved drive-by attack on Medicaid.

Unfortunately for Ryan, several experts on the War on Poverty have now taken their licks at the report. Doubly unfortunate for Ryan, some of them are experts whose work he cited in the report, and they say they’ve been misrepresented. That’s important, because the goal of Ryan’s report is to show that existing poverty programs are ineffective, and therefore should be changed (mostly by cutting them). But he cooked the books.

Rob Garver of the Fiscal Times has collected several of these complaints in one place. The scholars, he observes, “had reactions ranging from bemusement to anger at Ryan’s report, claiming that he either misunderstood or misrepresented their research.”

Perhaps the most egregious case is Ryan’s misuse of a 2013 paper from Columbia University’s Population Research Center. Ryan claimed the study found that poverty fell from 22% in 1969 to 16% in 2012, based on a Census Bureau statistic known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure. That’s true as far as it goes, but it goes suspiciously not far enough. As Jane Waldfogel, one of the Columbia researchers, observes, the study actually began its measurement with 1967, when the poverty rate was 26%. In other words, Ryan’s paper arbitrarily ignores two years of measurement, thereby cutting the size of the poverty decline by a third.


Other analyses, such as this one from Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones, pick apart other assertions in Ryan’s report.

Even beyond misquotation of scholars’ statistics, the report is extremely one-sided and sloppy in its interpretation of research on poverty programs. We referred to its misuse of the notorious Oregon study of Medicaid outcomes. There’s also his claim that Social Security disability payments were “sometimes called ‘crazy checks’ based on the suggestion that if children ‘acted crazy’ at school they could readily qualify.”

This is one of the enduring canards about disability, and to find it repeated in a congressional report without qualification is simply shocking. More to the point, it undermines Ryan’s claim to be taken seriously. The fact is that the “crazy checks” business is and always was a fabrication, as we explained here. Charles Pierce has delved even deeper into the accusation, tracing it to a student paper at Arkansas State University in 1993, which was based on no empirical data whatsoever, but got picked up and spread by dishonest politicians and lazy reporters. As Pierce demonstrates, this kind of casual sloppiness can have real consequences for people’s lives.

Ryan’s paper is being treated as a major platform plank in his campaign to be taken seriously as a critic of U.S. poverty policy. Washington should be ashamed to take him at his word. At the very least, any journalist who writes a profile painting Ryan as a poverty statesman should do better research than he did.