Ryan’s new report obscures a broad consensus about the government’s role in helping the poor.
On the surface, poverty appears to be one of America’s most polarizing issues. Liberals contend that people are poor because our economy doesn’t provide enough opportunities to get ahead. Conservatives argue that people are poor for personal reasons, because they are too lazy or feckless or drug-addicted to take advantage of the opportunities the system offers (or could offer if not for government interference).
Both sides can find examples to back their case. No matter how hard it might be to get out of poverty, some people muster heroic efforts and make it, while others confound every attempt to help them. In between are the people who jump at the brass ring, but somehow don’t manage to jump high enough. Maybe the ring could be lower, maybe they could jump higher — you can frame it either way. You could look at almost any failing individual and say, “He could be doing more.” But you can also find plenty of poor people whose struggles make you ask “Why does it have to be this hard?”
The partisan debate obscures something important: Underneath the polarized opinions about poor people in the abstract, Americans share a broad consensus about the kinds of people who need help and the kinds of things that should be done to help them. For example, just about everyone believes that the best way out of poverty is to get a good-paying job. Conservatives sometimes try to claim this position as their own, but in fact it’s pretty much universal. (Liberals disagree about how to create good jobs, not the value of getting one if you’re poor.)
That get-out-of-poverty-by-working plan might fail for one of four reasons:
- There are no jobs for people like you.
- The jobs you can get don’t pay enough to keep you out of poverty.
- There are good-paying jobs available, but you don’t have the skills to get them.
- There are jobs you could get if you wanted them, but you’d rather not work.
There’s even a broad public consensus about the appropriate government role in each case:
- If there really is no job for you, the government should either create a job (by say, funding a WPA-style public works program or subsidizing jobs in the private sector) or support you directly at some level consistent with human dignity (through old-age pensions, disability payments, or long-term unemployment insurance during deep recessions).
- If you are working at the only kind of job available, the government should provide (or make your employer provide) the extra little nudge you need to stay out of poverty. (Hence the minimum wage, the earned income tax credit, and a variety of supplemental programs like Food Stamps.)
- If all you need to prosper is training, the government should help you get it. (Free public schools, inexpensive community colleges, job training programs, student grants and loans, and so on.)
- But if you just don’t want to work, the government shouldn’t help you at all. You need to learn to take responsibility for yourself.
A few people would argue with each of those positions, but not anywhere near a majority. Our substantive political arguments over poverty aren’t about what to do with the people in each category, but rather which category is typical and how well government programs target the people in the category they’re supposed to help.
So liberal rhetoric focuses on people in the first three categories, who are legitimately seeking the help that Americans are proud to provide for each other. (Some other countries may let good people starve in the streets, but that’s not who we are.) Conservative rhetoric focuses on people in the fourth category who nonetheless get benefits because they masquerade as people in one of the first three categories: They aren’t really disabled, they are getting by fine without assistance (and so blow their Food Stamps on luxuries), and they aren’t really looking for a job or training for one. They’re just soaking up government benefits because they can. If those benefits went away, they’d realize that they have to get off their butts and work.
Few seriously dispute that both kinds of people exist: those who need and deserve government help, and those who get it even though they shouldn’t. The argument is more about the number of people in each group and (more subtly) something I’ve called the mercy/severity balance: How many people who need and deserve your help are you willing to leave to fend for themselves in order to prevent one lazy guy from cashing his government check and laughing at you?
For example: The USDA estimates that about 1% of Food Stamps are illegally sold for cash, while 3% of benefits are overpayments to people who either don’t qualify or shouldn’t get as much as they got. Does this strike you as a huge scandal that brings the legitimacy of whole program into question? Or do you focus instead on the good done for families who qualify for Food Stamps legitimately and use them as they were intended?
If somebody came up with an auditing program that would eliminate this waste and fraud, but would cost more (because paying auditors is expensive) than it saved, would you be for it or against it? What if it cost double what it saved? Ten times? A hundred?
From the conservative focus on the fourth category comes the conservative anti-poverty plan: If the way out of poverty is to take jobs that are readily available, and if the possibility of conning the government is keeping people from taking those jobs, then the way to reduce poverty is to cut government anti-poverty programs. Of course this means that some number of people who need and deserve help won’t get it, but that’s collateral damage.
Now you’re in a position to understand The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later, a report put out last Monday by the staff of the Republican majority of the House Budget Committee, i.e., Paul Ryan’s staff. In particular, you understand its conclusion:
Today, the poverty rate is stuck at 15 percent — the highest in a generation. And the trends are not encouraging. Federal programs are not only failing to address the problem. They are also in some significant respects making it worse.
The report looks extremely well supported — it has 683 footnotes, most of which reference reports by academic or government researchers (sometimes inaccurately). But looks are deceiving. For example, you’d think a statement like “Federal programs … are making it worse” would be footnoted to death. It’s not. Instead, what you’ll see if you go through the report’s review of nearly 100 government programs, is a lot of “results were not demonstrated” (said about the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) or “The program’s costs outweigh its benefits to society” (Job Corps) or “the program didn’t have any performance metrics or targets for the level of performance.” (Emergency Food and Shelter Program). I quit after reviewing about half the programs, but I didn’t find a single “Poor people would be better off without this program” with a footnote to a study proving that point.
That’s typical. The ten-page Overview at the front of the report seems to float freely above the evidence collected in subsequent sections. A lot of the evidence presented in the overview is of the correlation-is-not-causation variety. For example:
The Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill point out that if a person works full time, gets a high-school education, and waits until he or she is married to have children, the chances of being poor are just 2 percent.
Of course, a lot of things are probably already going right in your life if you’re able finish high school, find a full-time job, and attract someone you’d want to marry. It’s not any great surprise that you’re not poor, and I’m not sure what there is to learn from that fact.
Only 2.7 percent of Americans above the age of 16 who worked full time year-round were in poverty, even in 2007 — before the Great Recession had taken firm hold.
Since recessions increase poverty by raising unemployment, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that people who kept their jobs didn’t get poorer. And what really should grab our attention is: There are people who work full time year-round and are still poor! Why isn’t that rate zero?
Another substantive claim of the overview is:
since the beginning of the War on Poverty … male labor-force participation has fallen dramatically. In 1965, it was approximately 80 percent. Today, it has fallen to a record low of below 70 percent. Since 2009 alone, male labor-force participation has fallen 3.3 percentage points. Among working-age men, the labor-force participation rate has fallen from 97 percent in 1965 to 88 percent in 2013. In recent years, female labor-force participation has also declined. Since it reached its record high of 60.3 percent in 2000, female labor-force participation has fallen to 56.9 percent — declining 2.5 percentage points since 2009. And among working-age women, the labor-force participation rate has fallen from 77 percent to 74 percent from 2000 to 2013.
But again, what’s the cause? The War on Poverty has coincided with a long-term reduction in male labor-force participation, but is there some reason to believe that’s anything more than a coincidence?
The implication is that anti-poverty programs encourage laziness, particularly in men. To conservatives, I’m sure this conjures up images of able-bodied 20-somethings choosing to hang around on street corners rather than look for work. (Liberals are more likely to picture multinational corporations shipping jobs overseas.) But if you get into the discussions of specific programs that the report claims discourage work, you get a different picture. For example:
[E]xpansions of the [earned income tax credit] are associated with a reduction in labor market participation by married mothers.
In other words, in poor households where both parents work, mothers are likely to cut back their hours (and spend more time at home with the kids) if the family is better able to get by on what the father makes. Another example:
SSI reduces the labor supply of likely SSI participants aged 62–64. A $100 increase in SSI benefits is associated with a 5 percent reduction in the employment rate.
In other words, people who are limping towards retirement with disabilities will retire sooner if they can afford to. That’s not exactly strapping young dudes hanging out on street corners, is it? (Maybe one of those young guys will get the job that the guy with the bad back retired from.)
So when you get down to details, the overview-level statements are less convincing than they sound. And that connects to a third point:
Congress has taken a haphazard approach to this problem; it has expanded programs and created new ones with little regard to how these changes fit into the larger effort. Rather than provide a roadmap out of poverty, Washington has created a complex web of programs that are often difficult to navigate.
Imagine what Republicans might say if Congress had taken a unified approach. Wait, we don’t have to imagine, because the Affordable Care Act was a unified program with a comprehensive vision of increasing access to health care. Republicans complained about its mammoth size and invented all kinds of scary stories about what might be hidden in that enormous law.
That’s why there are hundreds of anti-poverty programs. If liberals presented one unified program to help the poor, we’d hear about this incredible octopus that had its tentacles in everything and was thousands of pages long and had an unimaginable cost. Every story of someone abusing a poverty program would be an argument against the whole thing. So instead, we have $65 million going to a separate “Education for Homeless Children and Youth” program and $11.5 million for “Job Placement and Training” for American Indians. If you want to cut them, you have to explain why you don’t want to educate homeless children and youth, or find jobs for Indians.
This is the basic dichotomy of American politics: In the abstract, voters will tell you that government spends too much. But the vast majority of things that the government spends money on are popular. No one would be happier than liberals if we could create a unified vision of how to help the poor, and then fund that vision. But I doubt that’s what Ryan is talking about, and I fear that he wants to unify the anti-poverty hydra so that there is only one throat to cut.
In short, it would be wonderful if Ryan’s report represented an honest attempt to examine what works and what doesn’t, and to assemble a unified program to do what the broad consensus of Americans want done: support the unemployable, find a job for everybody who wants one, make sure that people who work full time stay out of poverty, train people who have the talent and desire to move up to skilled labor or the professions — and keep lazy people from abusing the system.
I wish I could believe it did.
An interesting side-debate raised in the footnotes of the report is whether the War on Poverty is failing at all. The report references “Winning the War: Poverty from the Great Society to the Great Recession” by Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago and James Sullivan of Notre Dame. They propose measuring poverty by consumption rather than income, and they adjust for inflation differently. I can’t judge whether they’re right or not, but they show a different story than the official poverty rate. Their measure of poverty starts far higher 50 years ago and drops far lower today.
Another side-debate could happen over what success means. The report says:
The true measure of success is the number of people who get off these programs and get out of poverty.
And certainly everyone should agree that when a government program helps a poor person get a good job and join the middle class, that’s a success story. But limiting the suffering of the poor is a worthy goal in itself, and sometimes a government program succeeds simply by keeping things from getting worse.
For example: The United States has a terrible rate of what public-health professionals call “amenable mortality” — people who die of treatable conditions because they don’t get appropriate medical care. If the subsidies in ObamaCare bring that rate down, I’ll count that as a success.