Paul Ryan's Obsolete Thinking About Poverty

It's not the 1990s anymore. Any real proposal has to deal with a post-recession world where personal responsibility isn't enough to get Americans on their feet.
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Rick Wilking/Reuters

Among the most attractive virtues of the new Paul Ryan anti-poverty discussion paper is its modesty. The paper does not claim to be the last word, but only a first draft.

Even as a first draft, the document reveals important progress over the ugly “looters and moochers” rhetoric too often heard from Republicans in the recent past. It commits real resources to programs that work, especially the Earned-Income Tax Credit. Best of all, it promises that future policy will be guided by research and results, rather than ideology.

Yet for all its merits, the Ryan plan is backward-looking rather than forward-looking. The proposal is premised on a way of thinking about poverty that made excellent sense a decade ago—but that is not equal to the more difficult circumstances of today.

In the late 1990s, a booming U.S. economy created jobs at a rate not seen since the 1960s. Wages even for less-skilled workers rose handsomely. Pretty much anybody who wanted to work could do so, and full-time work offered a path out of poverty. An enhanced Earned-Income Tax Credit topped up wages; a new federal health benefit for children extended health care to families who earned just slightly too much to qualify for Medicaid.

It made sense in those days to think of poverty not as a social or economic problem but as an expression of some more personal affliction or burden: mental illness, adult illiteracy, addiction, family breakdown. That was very much the assumption behind the “compassionate conservatism” advocated by George W. Bush when he sought the presidency at the end of the 1990s. Poor people needed more than a check! Bush was impressed by research that suggested that religious groups did a much better job overcoming addiction than government agencies. His faith-based initiative promised to mobilize committed volunteers to provide an array of support to people who remained trapped in poverty even as the national economy boomed.

Ryan’s anti-poverty proposals share many of the assumptions and attitudes of that agenda from 15 years ago. They start from an assumption that poverty is an unusual and marginal issue in U.S. society. That idea is not articulated, but it is revealed by Ryan’s most attention-grabbing proposal: his “opportunity contract.” Ryan suggests that states experiment with a new approach to means-tested programs. Beneficiaries of those programs would be assigned a social-service provider. That provider—which might be a government agency, a nonprofit private-sector organization, or a for-profit business—would guide the recipient through the welter of government programs available. It would also set goals for the beneficiary, such as attending school or completing a drug-treatment program. The provider would reward good behavior and impose sanctions on bad behavior.

But does it remain true in the context of 2014 that poverty is grounded in behaviors, as seemed to be the case in 1999-2000? The 45 million Americans who rely on food stamps: Do they really need caseworkers to set goals for them? Or have those goals been moved out of reach by economic circumstances?

In the speech introducing his plan, Ryan talked of a young single mother, now working part-time as a retail clerk, who aspires to become a teacher’s assistant. States and local governments laid off more than half a million workers—including many entry-level teachers—in the crisis of 2009. They’re not hiring them back. So what happens if and when this hypothetical clerk meets the goals of her contract and obtains some kind of certification? Many other people with certification of all kinds have found themselves dependent on food stamps or other forms of means-tested relief—or else seeking disability payments, which have become a welfare program in all but name for millions of older Americans.

In 1999-2000, it seemed realistic to draw a sharp line of distinction between the vast majority of adults willing and able to work full-time—and thereby earn a living somewhere north of the poverty line—and the small minority of adults whose bad choices or bad situation rendered them dependent on public assistance. But for half a decade now, that distinction has looked blurry. The specific problem of poverty among those who don’t work full-time is no longer so easily separated from the broader problem of pervasive economic insecurity among those who do.

Liberals and progressives have responded to this grim new reality with proposals for a much higher degree of direct and indirect government intervention in the economy. Conservatives wish to beat them back in order to protect market freedom. That disagreement will divide politics in the next decade. For conservatives to compete effectively, they will want to find ways to enhance economic security that do not put government in control.

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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