Can Conservatives Solve Poverty?

 

Paul Ryan engages the problem, but can’t remove his ideological blinders.


Paul Ryan has spent years developing a reputation as Captain Cut: cut discretionary spending, cut entitlements, and most of all cut any program designed to help the poor. His budget proposals have meshed well with the other part of his reputation (which he sometimes claims and sometimes disowns): a follower of Ayn Rand, the author/philosopher who saw politics as a competition between Makers and Takers.

Recently, though, Ryan has been coming under the influence of the “reform conservatives” or “reformicons”: a small group of young conservative intellectuals like Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru — occasionally supported by the NYT’s conservative columnists Ross Douthat and David Brooks — who believe the Republican Party can’t in win the long run as the Party of No, and yet who don’t want to return to the center and compromise with Democrats. Instead, they want to see the GOP claim the Party of Ideas mantle by developing a set of distinctively conservative approaches to solving the very real problems that face America’s middle class: paying for health care, educating their children, finding good jobs, and so on.

And somewhere along the way, conservatives need to come up with their own plan for dealing with poverty, either because they actually care about the poor, or (more cynically) because they know a lot of middle-class voters don’t respond well to the harsh image conservatives have been cultivating. So the message has to be: “We care … we just care differently.”

The root cause of poverty: poor people. But if reform conservatism is going to take over the Republican Party rather than split off from it, it needs to stay in tune with the core sensibilities of the conservative movement. In particular, it can’t change the conservative view of the root cause of poverty: poor people.

I mean, what else could it be? Poverty can’t be capitalism’s fault, because capitalism is the only moral economic system. The problem can’t be the rich soaking up too much of the national output, because the rich are job creators whose wealth benefits everyone. Poverty can’t come from racism, because racism ended in the 1960s. (So if poverty seems to be concentrated in certain racial groups, they must have a cultural problem.)

Consequently, any conservative poverty program has to focus on fixing the character flaws of poor people: They need discipline. They need a work ethic. They need to learn to save their pennies rather than blowing everything on drugs and bling, and to control their libidos rather than spawning children they can’t feed.

The only other possible place to put the blame is government: Government has taken advantage of poor people’s lack of character by offering them benefits. This has made them dependent on government the way an addict is dependent on his drug. Addiction — pushers and addicts — is the fundamental conservative model of the liberal welfare state.

That’s their explanation of why people are still poor, 50 years after LBJ declared war on poverty: Liberals never intended to end poverty, any more than pushers want to end drug addiction. They just want to keep poor people dependent on government benefits, so that they’ll elect Democrats to keep the juice flowing.

So now you can see the outlines of a conservative poverty message: demand more of poor people, teach them middle-class virtues, target benefits more efficiently, and keep benefits flowing just long enough to wean the poor away from their dependency. Then they’ll be back on the path to wealth like the rest of America.

That message won’t convert many poor people, but that’s not really where it’s aimed. It’s supposed to comfort suburban moms, who lean Republican on other issues, but need to believe they’re voting for a plan more compassionate than Scrooge’s prisons and workhouses.

Ryan’s two reports. Paul Ryan is approaching this issue systematically, laying groundwork for the long term rather than grabbing for a few days of headlines.

He started down this path in March, with The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later (which I reviewed). WoP@50 identified and evaluated 92 separate federal programs aimed at helping the poor, and suggested that the government should have a more integrated approach to poverty that builds on the programs that work and eliminates the ones that don’t. He continued in July with Expanding Opportunity in America, which sketches a framework for that integrated approach without making any cost estimates other than to stipulate that the whole program should be “deficit neutral”.

This is not a budget-cutting exercise -— this is a reform proposal. This consolidation does not make judgments about an optimal level of spending.

EOiA‘s approach has two pieces: An expansion of the earned income tax credit to put money directly into the hands of the working poor, and block grants to the states who can use them to provide a variety of other services currently provided either by the federal government or a federal/state partnership: direct welfare payments, job training, child care, drug treatment, housing subsidies, food support, and so on.

Case managers. So far none of that is surprising. But the next piece is: Ryan imagines a system in which the government does not define a uniform set of entitlements that anyone fitting the definition automatically can get. Instead, he envisions each aid recipient working with a case manager who has discretion to create an individualized package of benefits.

Together, client and manager would work out a plan to solve whatever character issues and lack of qualifications prevent the client from getting a good job and leaving government assistance behind. This plan would become a “contract” that the client would sign and the manager would enforce.

Under each life plan, if the individual meets the benchmarks ahead of schedule, then he or she could be rewarded. For example, if the goal of an individual’s plan is to find a job within six months, and he or she starts working within three months, he or she could receive a bonus. Bonuses could take a number of creative forms, such as a savings bond. … [But] the opportunity plan could stipulate consequences for breaches of its terms, most likely immediate sanctions and a reduction in benefits.

If you’re an optimist like Reihan Salam, you can picture this working marvelously.

The theory behind having smart, dedicated caseworkers working on behalf of people who are down on their luck is that spending a bit more time and money now could help save time and money later. If someone takes the time to understand your personal situation and the particular challenges you face, there’s a better likelihood you’ll have a successful outcome down the line.

… People with low or no earnings … face diverse obstacles. Some need short-term help to, say, fix their car, which will allow them to commute to work, or to make a deposit on a rental apartment. Others don’t have the skills they need to earn enough to support themselves and, for whatever reason, will have a very hard time acquiring them. Sure, you could give both kinds of people food stamps and call it a day. Or you could recognize that one-size-fits-all programs don’t do justice to the ways in which individual circumstances vary.

But you can also picture the amount of power a case manager would have over her clients and wonder how to prevent abuse. And that means paying not just case managers (who might spend a considerable amount of time on each case), but also inspectors and supervisors to keep an eye on the case managers. Whether the efficiency gained by tailoring benefits would pay for that overhead is debatable.

Also, Ryan imagines the case workers not being government employees. Catholic Charities comes up in one example, and he might even be thinking of privatized for-profit case management. The first possibility makes me wonder how the law would prevent Guru Bob Charities from taking over the lives of Guru Bob’s followers. And the second has me thinking about the corruption that has accompanied privatized public schools. In a state that doesn’t seem concerned about its poor — Mississippi comes to mind — who’s going to care if the federal block grant winds up as corporate profit?

And finally, what happens if you get to the point in your contract where you’re supposed to be working, but the economy has crashed and there just are no jobs? Or there are only part-time minimum-wage jobs that won’t get you above the poverty level? The whole concept suffers from the Musical Chairs Fallacy*: No matter how quick or alert you train the players to be, somebody’s going to be eliminated if there aren’t enough chairs.

Jamelle Bouie calls the whole approach “breath-takingly paternalistic” and “wrong-headed”.

At some point in their lives, millions of Americans will experience a short spell of poverty. Not because they don’t have a plan to fix their lives or lack the skills to move forward, but because our economy isn’t run to create demand for labor, isn’t equipped to deliver stable work to everyone who wants it, and wasn’t built to address the distributive needs of everyone who works.

I am struck by the difference between how we think of the poor and how we think of corporations. If a poor person gets help and then doesn’t look for a job as hard as we think he should, we are morally outraged. But if a corporate tax cut is justified by the jobs it will create, and some corporation pockets the money but doesn’t create any jobs … well, no big deal. We take for granted that a corporation will be clever in the way it manipulates government programs, but the same cleverness in a poor person is reprehensible.

Independence. For the most part, Ryan’s committee has studied the issue by talking to conservative poverty experts rather than to poor people. (Why would they? If poor people were smart, they wouldn’t be poor.) But they did let one impoverished woman testify, and the culture clash was obvious.

It centered on the word independence. Tianna Gaines-Turner is a mother of three who is married and lives with her husband. They both work low-paying jobs. Her children all suffer from asthma and two are epileptic. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) offered a thought experiment in which current poverty programs were increased fivefold. People would be lifted out of poverty, he said, but it wouldn’t “break of the cycle of dependency”. Gaines-Turner replied, “I am independent on the program.” In other words, her family can have its own apartment and she and her husband can take care of their own children, rather than being homeless or in a shelter or giving their children up to someone else.

It’s precisely that “independence on the program” that Ryan would do away with. Rather than claiming benefits her situation entitles her to, Gaines-Turner would go hat-in-hand to a case manager, who would tell her how to live and cut her off if she didn’t obey.

What Ryan gets right. The two main ways to help the working poor are by increasing either the minimum wage (where the additional money comes from the employer) or the earned income tax credit (where it comes from the government). There’s an argument to be had over which is better, but either is better than nothing. I see the EITC as largely a subsidy to WalMart (which can go on paying wages its workers can’t live on), but I can swallow that if it’s the only politically viable choice.**

Ryan also proposes making the EITC easier to collect, so that you don’t have wait and file a tax return at the end of the year. I can get behind that.

And the most important change in conservative thinking is buried deep in EOiA: Ryan has noticed how lives and families are disrupted by long prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

A growing body of research exposes the high costs of incarceration. To help low-risk, non-violent offenders re-enter society, rebuild their families, and pursue careers, this proposal would revise mandatory-minimum guidelines and couple expanded enrollment in rehabilitative programing with an earned-time-credit system in federal prisons.

Liberals should jump on this. If Ryan is serious, it could have a huge impact.

But is he serious? I really have no idea. Quite possibly these reports are all window dressing, so that Republicans can say, “We have our own poverty plan.” Presumably in a few months Ryan will produce the third report in his trilogy, where he starts using numbers. That should tell us something.


* A version of the Composition Fallacy.

** Ryan argues that increasing the minimum wage would kill jobs that poor people need, but that point undermines his worldview. You can’t logically claim that anyone who tries hard enough can find a job at $7.25, but that job availability suddenly becomes a problem at $9. The overall ability of the economy to create enough jobs either is a problem or it isn’t. You can’t assert it in some situations and ignore it in others.

 

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Comments

  • Brent Holman  On August 4, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    Ryan knows that block grants are usually cut, reduced, or often eliminated altogether. The guy is a sociopath who believes that the poor are responsible for being poor, & he isn’t gonna be happy til he throws them all into the street.

  • Philippe Saner  On August 8, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Welfare case manager sounds like a great job for a low-level bully who wants power over vulnerable people. Welfare case manager supervisor sounds like a great job for a higher-level bully who wants power over vulnerable people.

    Amazing that people who distrust the government wouldn’t see how wrong this would go if actually implemented.

Trackbacks

  • By Pernicious Effects | The Weekly Sift on August 4, 2014 at 11:15 am

    […] This week’s featured article is “Can Conservatives Solve Poverty?“ […]

  • By The Yearly Sift: 2014 | The Weekly Sift on December 29, 2014 at 8:34 am

    […] would turn into policy down the road. (I covered the second step down that road in August in “Can Conservatives Solve Poverty?“, which a few more people read. We haven’t heard the last of […]

  • By The Right Men for the Job | The Weekly Sift on October 26, 2015 at 11:09 am

    […] The Weekly Sift has covered Paul Ryan in some detail over the years. My 2012 Ryan-as-VP-candidate triology is: “I Read Everything About Paul Ryan So You Don’t Have To“, “Paul Ryan: Veteran of the War on Women“, and “Ayn, Paul, and Me“. More recently, I discussed his attempt to redesign the War on Poverty in “Does Paul Ryan Care About Poverty Now?” and “Can Conservatives Solve Poverty?“. […]

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