by Robert Kraig
On July 24th Paul Ryan unveiled the first draft of his poverty plan at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Despite many misgivings about his motives and the impact of many of his proposals, we join those who welcome Paul Ryan’s engagement on poverty. At Citizen Action of Wisconsin we share Ryan’s stated premise that the status quo is deeply flawed, and that the nation needs a soul searching discussion of how we as a society can take bold action to eradicate the scourge of poverty.
That is why in June Citizen Action of Wisconsin joined two networks of faith-based leaders, the Wisconsin Council of Churches and WISDOM, and our good friends at the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, to launch a statewide conversation on our moral obligation to tackle poverty once and for all.
There are some worthy proposals in Ryan’s draft plan, such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit which boosts the income of low wage workers, and sentencing reform for non-violent offenders to lessen the impact of incarceration on economic prospects of so many Americans. One of the most striking things about Ryan’s new plan is that he proposes keeping anti-poverty funding at present levels. We doubt this is enough to make major progress on poverty, but it is in stark contrast to Ryan’s budgets that slashed domestic spending. (We look forward to the revision of Ryan’s future budgets)
The heart of Ryan’s proposal is the consolidation of most anti-poverty programs into “opportunity grants,” block grants which can be used by states in a more flexible way to help low income people have the guidance and tools they need to find jobs.
Congressman Ryan says he wants a dialogue, so in the first blog we offer two areas for serious further discussion.
First, the major blind spot in Ryan’s approach is the shortage of good family supporting jobs. Ryan’s draft plan uses “opportunity grants” to provide “case management” to individuals so they can find jobs. He gives an example of a single mother who needs help with food, rent, child care, and tuition assistance to get the skills she needs to land a job. This may of course help in individual cases, but there is simply not a large enough supply of good jobs in the private economy to move millions of people out of poverty, and in fact many of the few jobs that are available pay poverty wages.
An increased Earned Income Tax Credit would help, but ultimately even the most effective self-help programs will fail unless we also develop a serious strategy at a scale that can create tens of millions of new middle class jobs. In this area, Ryan offers nothing constructive so far. He has no proposals to increase the minimum wage, or make major economic investments in the most depressed areas of the country which have been decimated by unregulated globalization. Ryan talks in his plan about taking an evidence-based approach to poverty programs. We agree, but we also need to do the same when it comes to how we shape the private economy. More right-wing talking points about lavishing tax cuts on high income earners and the supposed job creators is the kind of magical thinking that is not going to cut it anymore!
Second, we share the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis that block grants would amount to less money being spent on food, housing, and other necessities, especially during recessions, leaving more Americans hungry and homeless. CBPP argues that if you consider the administrative cost of Ryan’s case management model, and that block grants cannot increase during economic downturns as current federal programs do, that his approach will actually increase poverty. Historically block grants are reduced over time by Congress because there is no entitlement to a certain level of benefit. The only way to experiment as Ryan suggests and not force even more American families into poverty, is to spend more, not the same. Although Ryan has made progress in proposing budget neutrality, if we as a society are serious about eradicating poverty we should be willing to spend more. After all, budgets after are moral documents that reveal our priorities as a community.
This is an important conversation to have, so we will post additional blog posts as more details of Ryan’s plan become available. In addition, Citizen Action will be working with our coalition partners to stage public forums around Wisconsin to provide an even deeper opportunity for engagement and discussion of how we can answer the moral call to create an America where everyone, regardless of race, gender, or geography, has an equal chance at the American dream.