Paul Ryan, anti-poverty sage or partisan hack?

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). His committee released a report Monday critiquing federal anti-poverty programs, saying duplicative and complex efforts have created a "poverty trap."
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

A headline Monday in Politics Now, the L.A. Times’ blog on national politics, distilled the challenge facing Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) as he tries to broaden his party’s appeal.

The story by Lisa Mascaro was about a report the House Budget Committee (which Ryan chairs) released Monday on Washington’s “duplicative and complex” array of benefits for the poor. Declared the headline: “Paul Ryan calls for cuts to anti-poverty programs.”

The report didn’t actually call for cuts, however. Instead, over the course of 204 pages, it noted the pros and cons of 92 ongoing federal efforts to lift Americans out of poverty. Although the criticism was withering at times (example: “HHS’ own research demonstrates the Head Start program, as a whole, is failing to prepare children for school”), the report also notes the research that supports some of the programs. And it makes no specific recommendations for modifying, terminating or expanding any of them.


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OK, pause for half a second before you pound out a comment blaming liberal bias for casting Ryan’s work in the worst possible light. The report opens with a sharply critical assessment of Washington’s efforts, characterizing the War on Poverty as a failure and saying aid programs have created a “poverty trap.”

So there’s no question that Ryan will use the report as the basis to propose jettisoning or overhauling some major safety net programs in favor of more efficient alternatives. Were he a Democrat, though, headline writers probably wouldn’t be so quick to suggest that he’s Snidely Whiplash in the flesh. Instead, the assumption would be that he, well, cares about the poor.

But that’s one of the points that Ryan has been trying to make: You can’t equate spending on these programs with winning the war on poverty.

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“For too long, we have measured compassion by how much we spend instead of how many people get out of poverty,” Ryan said in a statement Monday. “We need to take a hard look at what the federal government is doing and ask, ‘Is this working?’ This report will help start the conversation. It shows that some programs work; others don’t. And for many of them, we just don’t know.”

He’s right about that. Still, a clear-eyed assessment of the flaws in federal poverty programs doesn’t necessarily reveal how to fix them.


Ryan, perhaps the House Republicans’ preeminent policy wonk, wants the House GOP to champion a new anti-poverty approach to demonstrate that conservative, pro-growth policies would be better for all Americans, not just those with means. The report hints at where he’s going: toward a more unified set of programs whose benefits provide a more effective incentive to get and keep a job.

The report notes that one of the problems of the current system is that it imposes heavy implicit taxes on the poor as they climb the income ladder. That’s because means-tested benefits (including food stamps, Medicaid and housing subsidies) decrease or are cut off as a person’s income grows. Combine those reductions with the increase in taxes owed, the report says, and you’ve got a strong incentive to stay poor.

That may be true, but it’s an inherent problem in any program that helps only the needy. And as the committee’s report acknowledges, the problem of high implicit marginal tax rates is hardly the only factor deterring poor people from moving up to the middle class.

The report holds up as a model the bipartisan 1996 welfare reform law, which limited how long beneficiaries could receive aid and required them to obtain jobs to stay eligible. The child poverty rate, an important measure of the effectiveness of a welfare program, did fall sharply after the program went into effect. But the economy was booming then, driving unemployment rates to new lows and raising median incomes to their highest level ever in real terms. So while the new benefit restrictions had an effect, strong economic growth and a tight labor market deserve a great deal of credit for the reduction in child poverty.

Ultimately, Ryan has to convince voters that his plan for changing federal anti-poverty programs is motivated more by a desire to help the poor than by a wish to cut costs. Pitting “makers” against “takers” seems to work well in House races but not in national ones, as Ryan saw firsthand as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012.

Another piece of baggage for Ryan is his stance on Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for the poor. In his budget proposals, Ryan has sought to cut Medicaid spending not by offering a more effective or efficient way to deliver healthcare but by capping the federal government’s responsibility and shifting risk to the states. Those proposals seem to emanate more from a desire to cut handouts than an effort to provide a stronger hand up.



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