Paul Ryan Can Fight for His Budget or Fight Poverty—but Not Both

Even if the Republican is sincere in his outreach to the poor, his spending plan would hurt the neediest Americans by cutting the programs on which they rely.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

The term “compassionate conservatism” is identified with George W. Bush, but the concept really is owed to the late Jack Kemp, the Republican “happy warrior.” To know Kemp was to love him, whether you agreed with his supply-side ideology or not. Kemp genuinely, deeply cared about the poor and oppressed, and he understood the special challenges facing minorities, especially African Americans. He sought ways to ease their plight through the free-market system but with a clear understanding that government had a substantial role to play in providing a safety net for those who could not care for themselves or who were beset by difficulties not of their own making.

I doubt that Kemp would have appreciated Mitt Romney’s discussions of the 47 percent who are takers (especially since that includes retirees getting Social Security and Medicare, the disabled, and the working poor who pay payroll taxes but not income taxes—in large part because of the Earned Income Tax Credit).

Compassionate conservatism is coming back, prodded in part by a strong push by Arthur Brooks—the president of American Enterprise Institute, where I am a resident scholar—for conservatives to recognize that they should focus less on the problems of the rich and more on the problems of the poor, and should emphasize the importance and legitimacy of a safety net as a prerequisite for crafting conservative policies to empower the poor.

Brooks’s rhetoric and focus have been embraced by many key Republicans, none more passionately and visibly than House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. Ryan visited urban centers of poverty as the vice-presidential nominee in 2012, and he has embarked on an extended tour of such areas since that election. A laudatory recent profile of Ryan by Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins describes some of those visits. Coppins’s piece has been ripped by many liberals, as has Ryan himself in recent days. Ryan’s dedication to finding conservative solutions to the problem of persistent poverty took a hit for his clumsy comments about pathologies in the inner city, which many people take as a code term for areas of minorities.

I know Ryan, and I’m sure that his problem was ham-handed language, not racial bias. And I also believe that he genuinely wants to find ways to relieve poverty and help people move up. But Coppins in his piece noted that Ryan’s recent budget was in direct tension with Ryan’s goal of constructing policies to help the poor. Ryan said, “I’ve got two roles. I’m chairman of the House Budget Committee representing my conference ... and I’m a House member representing Wisconsin doing my own thing. I can’t speak for everybody and put my stuff in their budget. My work on poverty is a separate thing.”

Therein lies the problem. There are and can be conservative ways to approach joblessness, social dysfunction, and poverty—including things that many Democrats and liberals could embrace. That has happened before, with, for example, the Earned Income Tax Credit, a conservative idea to enable the working poor to have a chance to come close to a living wage without putting all the burden on employers. It could happen now through a revamping of tax incentives and disincentives for working families, where now if a second person in a family with children wants to work, the marginal tax rate can approach 90 percent or more. With the cost of child care that comes when two parents work, that can mean an effective tax rate on work of more than 100 percent. And the idea of rerouting some government funds now used to finance programs run by government agencies to those run through communities and private organizations is a sound one.

It may well be that over time, having more programs run by community groups (many already are, of course) will not only help people more but cost taxpayers less. But the fact is that providing a safety net to those who need it costs money—including providing housing help; food stamps; and help with child care for single parents who work and two-parent households where both work. And the fact is that the Ryan budget is in direct contradiction to the goals represented by those policy options. Ryan moves to balance the budget in 10 years with no additional revenues, without any changes for the next 10 years in benefits for Medicare or Social Security recipients, and with increases in military spending. It repeals the Affordable Care Act—while keeping every dollar of the Medicare cuts that are in the act. It cuts $732 billion from Medicaid, block-granting the program; cuts food stamps (formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) by $125 billion; and cuts discretionary domestic spending, which includes most of the existing programs to alleviate or ameliorate poverty, by several hundred billions.

No matter how creative states would be in streamlining and reforming Medicaid, cuts of $732 billion over 10 years would take away the healthcare safety net from millions of people. And keep in mind that the single largest component of Medicaid is long-term care for the elderly, many of them middle-class people who divested themselves of their assets to qualify for nursing-home assistance. These people, and their children, are voters, and states will be reluctant to make them the victims of the cuts. So even more of the burden will fall on the younger poor.

There are better ways to implement the food-stamp program, but cuts of $125 billion—three times what House Republicans demanded, unsuccessfully, in the last farm bill—will leave lots of Americans with real hunger.

Coppins notes, “Ryan’s broad vision for curing American poverty is one that conservatives have been championing for the last half-century, more or less. He imagines a diverse network of local churches, charities, and service organizations doing much of the work the federal government took on in the 20th century. Rather than supplying jobless Americans with a never-ending stream of unemployment checks, for example, Ryan thinks the federal government should funnel resources toward community-based work programs.”

But the budget would cut those resources dramatically. The alternative, presumably, is that private charity will step in to fill the vacuum if government draws back. But there is little reason to believe that we will see a dramatic uptick in charitable giving under these circumstances. When hard economic times come, people hunker down and give a little less. Government funding for a safety net is a necessity, and major-league cuts in every program that supports a safety net will not work, even with innovative programs to lift people out of poverty and not enable them. A budget is a symbol of priorities. There will have to be very different priorities to make the promise of a conservative approach to the safety net and poverty actually feasible.