Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, chair of the House of Representatives Budget Committee, spent the fall touring poor neighborhoods in an effort to rebrand the GOP as the true saviors of the poor. It was both an effort to mark the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, and to salve the wounds his party felt after its 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney put on a monocle and proclaimed the nation to be full of moochers while giggling maniacally over vichyssoise at a fancy dinner party. (OK, he didn’t do that, but he did do this.)
Monday, Ryan released a report on the federal programs meant to help low-income Americans. He means it to be a critique of most of those programs, and use the report as a platform from which to argue for reform. If his previous budgets are a guide, he wants to turn most federal programs into block grants for the states. If our history with welfare reform tells us anything, block grants would mean funding for, and participation in, those programs will steadily decline until they are almost nonexistent.
Though it is more than 200 pages, the report itself is a bare-bones outline of descriptions of current programs, selectively chosen reports on their effectiveness, and a note about how much the federal government spends on them. The programs range from legal assistance for poor defendants to refugee resettlement, so the populations vary. Ryan argues that the persistence of poverty despite them is evidence that the Johnson-era programs didn’t work, when in fact many have changed—for example, welfare no longer exists. Ryan ignores broader economic forces like the decline of worker’s rights and globalization, and blames instead family structure. Ryan also doesn’t give a full picture of the status of each program, and instead picks the critiques of them that serve his interests. Below are some of the things he leaves out.
Child Care and Development Fund: Through this fund, low-income parents, especially single mothers, get money to pay for child-care services. Nearly every person I speak to in or working with low-income women name this as the single most important program for low-income families. Low-income women can’t work without it. Ryan’s report points out that its existence—it was started in 1990 and expanded in 1996—raised the workforce participation rate of low-income women. He also rightly criticizes the fact that many recipients cannot afford high-quality childcare. What he leaves out, however, is that the program is underfunded, and only about one in six eligible parents receives the credit nationwide. Twenty-three states have waiting lists, and when state budgets crashed during the Great Recession, the situation for families became worse, not better. It’s hard to evaluate a program that isn’t operating at its fullest capacity.
Head Start: Ryan seizes on a favorite report among Republicans, published in 2012, that shows there are no significant benefits to children who attended Head Start after they’ve reached the third grade. There were problems with that study, and outcomes have to be measured on a more long-term basis. At the very least, it’s not as simple a case as critics predict, especially because the quality of the elementary school children are enrolled in after Head Start matters a great deal. Throughout Head Start, students and their parents are given wraparound services, and parents are provided assistance in areas many traditional elementary schools don’t cover. Moreover, third grade marks an important shift: from that level on, students are no longer explicitly taught how to read, but are expected to be able to read so that they can learn from textbooks and reading-based instruction in almost every subject. That means that less literate parents are less able to help their children with homework, and might become disengaged.
Earned Income Tax Credit: Or the EITC, is a program designed to help the working poor that has enjoyed broad bipartisan support, at least until now. But the EITC has a big error rate, which the IRS places at between 21 and 23 percent. Ryan points this out. But that makes it sound as though people are intentionally scamming the government and all of those people are getting too much money, which isn’t true. The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities outlines how people can make errors—the program is complicated, and, for example, a divorced dad who pays child support and is allowed to count his children as an exemption wouldn’t qualify for the EITC, but it is easy to see why he might think he would—and also why we should be skeptical of that error rate—the low-income families audited for possible errors have trouble providing the needed documentation because the system is confusing (for anyone), and they can’t afford an attorney to help them navigate the process. Also, the IRS inspector general report Ryan and others rely on for their overpayment figure—from about $11 to $13 billion—doesn’t account for underpayments: many families who qualify for the benefit don’t apply for it, or some families get too little, which means the net overpayment amount is probably less than that figure.
Food Stamps: Ryan criticizes the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, which allowed states to relax the strict asset-limit tests before families received food stamps, now officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Previously, food stamp recipients couldn’t have more than $2,000 in assets, which made it hard for any family with, for example, more than one working vehicle to receive short-term assistance. It also discouraged savings. With strict asset limits, families who have fallen on hard times must spend down all of their savings and other possessions to receive short-term assistance, which can make it harder for them to bounce back. The New America Foundation has a website showing how asset limits vary from state to state. (Full disclosure, beginning March 1, I am a fellow with the New America Foundation’s Asset Building Program, which does that research.)