WASHINGTON – Two years after their presidential nominee helped sink his own campaign with comments about the 47 percent of Americans “who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them,” Republicans are raising ideas that they think will help the 15 percent of Americans who are genuinely in poverty.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., Mitt Romney’s running mate on that doomed 2012 GOP ticket, in recent weeks unveiled a stinging critique of the half-century-old “War on Poverty,” as well as a budget proposal that aims to slash government anti-poverty programs in hopes of saving them.
Last month, Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, put forth a smaller-scale plan that would allow states to experiment with ways to redraw anti-poverty programs to save money and encourage work.
Republicans say there’s a good reason for them to target the poverty issue now: the stark reality that 50 years into the War on Poverty that President Lyndon B. Johnson initiated, the national poverty rate has fallen by a mere 2.3 percentage points.
“Maybe people are recognizing the status quo isn’t working,” Reed said.
But Democrats describe the new GOP emphasis on the poor as an old Republican idea, cutting government spending so the rich won’t have to pay so much in taxes.
“They’re still talking about taking money and diverting it to the very wealthy,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, which, according to the Census Bureau, has the nation’s third-highest poverty rate: 30.1 percent. “It’s the same tune, from the same songbook.”
At the very least, though, the song Republicans are singing now has a new arrangement.
“For too long, we have measured compassion by how much we spend instead of how many people get out of poverty,” Ryan said in releasing his report. “We need to take a hard look at what the federal government is doing and ask, ‘Is this working?’ ”
Ryan’s report noted that there are currently 92 federal programs that aim to address poverty, which together cost $799 billion a year. Ryan acknowledges that the programs have helped bring down poverty somewhat over the years but contends that together, they form a complex web of inefficiency that’s difficult for the poor to navigate.
The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities quickly tried to debunk Ryan’s report, noting that the official poverty rate does not offer a good comparison over decades because it is based only on income, therefore ignoring the impact of huge parts of the social safety net such as food stamps and public housing. Incorporating those programs, a Columbia University study found that poverty had actually fallen from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012.
Worse yet for Ryan, he quickly found himself on the defensive over comments he made on the issue in a radio interview with longtime conservative stalwart and former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.
“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” Ryan said.
Those comments prompted several black lawmakers to accuse Ryan of racism, and they stand in sharp contrast to the standard Democratic view of the poor.
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., spelled out that Democratic view at a February appearance at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“It makes me angry because all we hear about from the other side is that those on government assistance are somehow scamming the system, or lazy,” Gillibrand said. “I’ve never met a lazy child who’s hungry; have you? I’ve never met one man or woman who was on unemployment benefits, or who needs food stamps, who wants to be there.”
Republicans and Democrats also disagree on the policy prescriptions that can address poverty.
While Ryan’s report on poverty did not spell out solutions, he offered some big changes in the budget proposal he unveiled last week for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which will begin Oct. 1.
That measure would strengthen the work requirements implemented with welfare reform two decades ago. In addition, it would trim Medicaid by replacing it, in part, with a tax credit for the working poor while turning nursing home care for the elderly poor into a block grant to the states. Federal funding for food stamps would also be cut dramatically, with the states given more flexibility to design their own nutrition programs.
Similarly, but on a lesser scale, Reed’s “Hand Up Act” would allow states to apply for demonstration projects to reform Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, job training, adult education, public housing and food stamps. Reed said the idea would be to allow the states to strive to make those programs more efficient and then share in the savings along with the federal government.
In addition, those state experiments would strengthen work requirements on those programs in the hopes of ending what Republicans like to call a culture of dependency.
“The philosophy I bring to the table is that I really believe we should be in a position to teach people to fish, not just hand them a fish,” Reed said.
Yet critics say the Republican approach amounts to taking that fish from the poor and giving it to the rich. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that the latest Ryan budget would cut aid to the poor by $800 billion over 10 years while cutting taxes for the richest 1 percent of Americans in half.
“Ryan has at times received praise for having the courage to propose these policies,” said the center’s president, Robert Greenstein. “Is it courageous to target your deepest cuts on the poorest Americans, who vote in lower numbers and provide little in campaign contributions?”
Politicians on both sides of the aisle agreed that Ryan’s ideas, as well as Reed’s, have no chance of making it into law so long as a Democrat remains in the White House. But Republicans said it’s important that they lay out an anti-poverty program now to persuade the American public to eventually make a change.
“The Democrats always try to treat the symptoms of the problem, thinking that if they spend more and more, they’ll cure the symptoms,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence. “Meanwhile, the Republicans are focused on treating the causes of the problem. But the solutions take a while.”
Democrats are pushing a range of very different solutions. Gillibrand, for example, has set forth what she calls her “American Opportunity Agenda,” focusing on equal pay for men and women, enhanced family and medical leave, improved access to child care, universal prekindergarten and a higher minimum wage.
Gillibrand, who led the fight in the Senate to limit GOP-backed cuts in food stamps, noted that for all the Republican talk about the value of work, they’re refusing to raise a minimum wage that leaves workers earning a salary below the poverty line.
“If you are not rewarding work in this country, you have lost faith with a core American value, that anyone that works hard can earn her way into the middle class,” she said. “It’s simply not true when we are paying a full-time worker poverty wages. We must raise the minimum wage.”