The Smart Money: The War on Poverty at 50

Posted Tuesday, March 4, 2014 in Analysis

The Smart Money: The War on Poverty at 50

by Gina Hamilton

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, released a new report on poverty this week.  On one hand, he should be credited for understanding, finally, that there is a serious and pervasive problem with poverty in the U.S.  Until comparatively recently, most in the GOP didn't acknowledge that poverty was a genuine problem.

But now it is. So what is Ryan's plan?

He put out a 204-page report called "The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later", in which he concludes that all federal programs to aid the poor are flawed so badly that they should not be continued, and instead, all aid to the poor should be consolidated into a single grant to the states (less than what the states are now receiving, of course) and let them sort it out.

Ryan looked at cash aid, including Social Security, food stamps, Head Start, Medicaid, education and job training, energy assistance, housing, and veterans programs.

Ryan found statistics that tend to show that the presence cash aid programs, including Social Security, depresses the number of people in the job market, and that disabled children receiving benefits are less likely to get work or an education.  Ryan claims that mothers receiving TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) somehow manage to have one or more of their children "disabled" based on some definition of disability, either physical or mental. Most of the disabilities of young children are physical, while older children have mental disabilities, by and large.  When a child is 18, he or she must qualify for disability at the more stringent adult standard. After a short period of time when child SSI recipients declined, they are on the rise again. Of these children, only 22 percent could be employed in later life, and nearly 40 percent did not have a high school diploma.

He has similarly depressing things to say about TANF. Even the Earned Income Tax Credit, widely credited with encouraging people to work, was panned because the recipients "didn't work enough hours" to suit him. 

In terms of child care programs and Head Start programs, designed to encourage single mothers to work, Ryan acknowledges they do encourage people back into the job market, but blames them on "poorer maternal health" and "adverse maternal-child interactions". He also says that Head Start isn't preparing kids adequately for school. Pell Grants seem to be correlated with increased tuition at colleges.

Energy and food aid programs were similarly panned.  Supplemental Nutrition Aid Program (SNAP) "decreases poverty, but not by much" and discourages "female headed households from working".  The National School Lunch Program contributes to obesity in children (you can't make this stuff up).

Medicaid patients are more likely to use health care, but there is little effect on overall health (although a companion study shows a decline in mortality). A great deal of time in the report was spent worrying about how Medicaid would affect other insurance companies in the state, and worrying about doctors who weren't being paid as much by Medicaid patients.  Again, Ryan pointed to statistics suggesting that Medicaid would prevent female-headed households from working and would be more likely to accept other forms of welfare.

In housing assistance, public housing may "impede the upward mobility" of tenants, while Section 8 voucher holders don't look for cheaper housing.

Ryan seemed surprised by the growth of programs for veterans during the last decade, and seemed somewhat unwilling to ascribe the demand for pensions and health care to the wars, rather blaming a poor economy and the 2001 Veterans Education and Benefits Expansion Act.

Predictably, Ryan's "plan" for dealing with the flawed safety net and the "failed" War on Poverty is yet another round of tax cuts, because of course the problem really stopping people from getting jobs is the fact that if they do, their marginal tax rate goes up a few percentage points.

And of course, export the problem to the states, by creating block grants to deal with social services, and get it off the federal budget roles.  That way, the feds can balance the budget and start to decrease the debt.  Right.

If Ryan weren't cherrypicking his sources (there are plenty of sources, for instance, that suggest that Head Start does in fact get children ready for kindergarten and that Head Start children do better in elementary school generally than non-Head Start children, including the very study Ryan chooses to quote from), this might have been a very important overview of poverty programs in America.  There are issues everyone could agree with - such as work is better than welfare, and helping people get off welfare through jobs and education that leads to jobs is a worthy goal.

Unfortunately, like everything else in Washington, it is being politicized, in this case, by the right, but poverty has been politicized by the left, too.

It's time for a non-political entity to tackle the issue, and do a meta-analysis of all the data.  That would be a report worth reading.

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