I’ve heard that Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has concocted another plan in which to reduce government and lower the federal deficit. It’s called “Expanding Opportunity in America,” and if you are wondering what the two goals have in common, don’t worry, because Ryan has it all figured out, sort of.
Let’s see: Fold all federal programs into “block grants” and give them to the states to pass out as they wish. Of course, the saving money part comes in when Republican-controlled states decide they don’t need the block grants, because it is a matter of small government principle; that, of course, is just one reason why Ryan’s ideas should be ignored at all costs—because, unlike red-right states, the federal government doesn’t deny people needed assistance based on partisan political (and, of course, racial) “principles.” There is another part of Ryan’s plan that is just as obnoxious: Low-income people don’t necessarily need more money—they need to spend what they make more “wisely,” and even “save” what pennies they can, if they can. But of course they “can.”
However, that is just a brief overview of Ryan’s proposal to get people off government “relief” and on the road to “opportunity,” or whatever. The fraud, of course, is that we live in a society where there is intense and growing income inequality, and that incomes have decreased in real terms for a growing proportion of the population, and skyrocketing for a few people who know how to “game” the “system.” There will always be a significant proportion of the population who will be paid far less than a livable wage, and no amount of “opportunity” will change that so long as “opportunity” is limited to those who have the “looks” and the social connections. Ryan and those who think like him seem completely oblivious of reality.
Still, I think it is only fair to examine the specifics of Ryan’s “plan” and see if there is any useful crumbs to be found. Let’s see:
On the personal level, growing up in a two-earner household, completing formal education, and developing a habit and a store of savings are all significantly associated with higher rates of upward mobility.
While all of these variables are useful, they don’t necessarily equate to “upward mobility.” I don’t want to cause trouble here, but back in the day when a single wage-earner made enough to support a family, children didn’t learn how to function in society or learn ethical and moral values from equally immature friends, gangs, violent video games, “reality” television or the latest vulgar street “rap.” Of course, it would help that any “adult” filling this requirement not also have been “raised” in this fashion, or is ill-educated, or sees school merely as a convenient “day care” facility; but neither does it “help” if either working adult has no time to “tutor” or support a child in need of assistance. And frankly, this bizarre fixation on “savings,” especially for low-income people with a home and children to support, seems to indicate that well-off Republicans like Ryan seem to live in a different kind of reality.
Conversely, people who live in more geographically isolated areas, which often suffer from high levels of concentrated poverty and crime, are more likely to experience lower rates of upward mobility—even those who are not poor or do not engage in such activities themselves may be at increased risk of downward mobility.
All quite true. But as we shall see, Ryan’s program does little to reverse these circumstances—in fact works to do exactly the opposite of what it claims it is trying to “improve” in “opportunity” services.
In looking at these issues, there is a tendency to measure success by how much the government spends on programs or how many people it spends money on. That should not be the measure of success—because success goes beyond one’s income quintile. Success ultimately is in the well-being of people, their happiness. And research indicates that work, faith, family, and community are critical ingredients to people’s happiness.
What is Ryan trying to say here? Money is not necessarily the “problem,” because more money doesn’t necessarily equate to “happiness.” This suggests that well-off people believe the shibboleth that low-income don’t have any ambition save to make just enough money to sit on a sofa watching television and guzzling beer. Most people who are low-income wage labor don’t derive any particular “happiness” from their jobs—they just feel “lucky” to have a job at all. But Ryan suggests they can get around this by going to church and hear how they should accept their lot in life because that is the way God planned it—some people are meant to be rich, because that is they God “rewards” people with “faith,” while others are meant to be poor because, well, they just didn’t do enough to earn God’s good graces. Ryan also seem to have misinterpreted Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; Bob Cratchet may have found whatever happiness he had in life from his family, but it was Scrooge supplying a large turkey and increasing Cratchit’s pay that actually brought his household long-term happiness.
Ryan then quotes someone from the far-right American Enterprise Institute:
The right to define our happiness, work to attain it and support ourselves in the process — to earn our success — is our birthright. And it is our duty to pass this opportunity on to our children and grandchildren.
This is the typical right-wing shibboleth of those who had it “easy” in life from the start. “Opportunity” is what certain people choose to allow other like people. Where I work there is company that hires people based on 90 percent surface appearance and 10 percent substance, judging from the amount of work they actually do. The company deliberately discriminates against people of a certain “ethnicity”—I don’t need to tell you which one, or why. The point is that the jobs they do requires no more ability to “earn the right” to do, but only the opportunity to do, and opportunity is blocked because of discriminatory hiring. And we are supposed to assume this doesn’t happen all over? This not to say that educational qualifications are not essential in many occupations; but in many service occupations, “surface” appearance is the only thing that matters—thus discrimination opposed to “opportunity” is clearly in play.
The first task is to determine how we should define progress. There are a number of broad measures that define the health of society—such as rates of mobility, marriage, or educational attainment—that one can use to measure success. With respect to poverty, the most widely available metric remains the Official Poverty Measure (OPM). By now, it is widely accepted that there are significant flaws in the federal government’s OPM. Most importantly, it doesn’t account for all the federal government does to relieve poverty, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and other benefits. By omitting income from these programs, the OPM may overstate the number of people in poverty and thereby understate the efficacy of federal aid.
Ryan also overestimates the number of people on such “support.” “Able-bodied single males” are particularly unlikely to even qualify for these programs even if they are unemployed. Ryan also neglects to mention that without these income supplements, people would go back to qualifying as being “in poverty”—that is why they are receiving it in the first place! The stupidity of the above claim cannot be overstated, and is typical of Republican misunderstanding of the problem of poverty and the government’s role in relieving it.
On the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, then, we should reexamine the federal government’s role. For too long, the federal government has tried to supplant, and not to support, the people fighting poverty on the front lines—families, neighborhoods, community groups. In the fight against poverty, the people ultimately are the vanguard, and government is the rearguard. Government protects the supply lines. But it is the people themselves who take to the front lines.
That’s funny. Most people on the ground are not complaining about the “government” telling them what to do, but that they do not have enough money or resources to do their jobs, and more likely to bemoan mainly Republican efforts to cut their funding.
Many federal regulations—especially energy regulations—place a disproportionately large burden on low-income households. And occupational licensing—most often at the state and local level—too often protects incumbents instead of the public. This proposal would require Congress to review any proposed federal regulation that would unduly burden low-income families. It also calls for states and local governments to revise their licensing laws.
What can Ryan possibly be talking about here? About polluting industries placing operations in poor neighborhoods? No, about regulations meant to safeguard their well-being, but place “undue burdens” on industry. I can’t get enough of this Orwellian doublethink that Republicans repeatedly engage in.
Results-Driven Research: This proposal calls for a commission to examine the best ways to encourage rigorous analysis of our safety-net programs. Specifically, the commission would consider the implementation of a new Clearinghouse for Program and Survey Data to enhance research capabilities and help us policymakers design more effective programs.
Poverty is a very complex problem, and Washington doesn’t have all the answers. This paper is not meant to serve as the final word, but to start a conversation all across the country.
Sounds fine in print, but how often have we had these kind of “commissions” in the past that were useless partisan exercises that led to nothing? Poverty, after all, isn’t that complex. It is about massive wage discrepancies, too many people demanding jobs who then drive down wages for all, the domestic economic effect of buying cheap foreign-manufactured goods—and not just the lack of opportunity, but the perception that opportunity is in the hands of the “privileged.” We don’t need another “conversation” to know that this is true.
The biggest snag in the safety net is that it discourages work. Many federal programs are means-tested, so as families earn more money, they get less aid. Any system that concentrates on the most vulnerable will face this tension. But the current system exacerbates it by layering on program after program without ensuring any coordination among them.
Don’t you just “love” right-wing inanity? Ryan just complained that many people who receive aid no longer “qualify” as being impoverished, and now he is saying that people who work for a living will be “discouraged” from doing so because they are not receiving enough aid, so why work at all? Ryan shows a great deal of contempt for working people in assuming that this is their “ethic.” I’ve never made enough to have a comfortable living, but I’ve never thought it would be “better” for me to rely on government programs I would only “qualify” for if I didn’t work at all. All this “welfare queen” business may be true in some segments of society, but most people have more pride than what Ryan gives them credit for.
Or take another example: a single mother with one child.15 Imagine that she earns $7.25 an hour working full-time year-round (or $15,080 a year). She will make just below the poverty line, which was $15,730 in 2014.16 Now imagine she’s offered a raise to $10.35 an hour (or $21,528 a year). If she accepts, she’ll hit the peak rate on the phase-out of federal aid. At this point, thanks to higher taxes and lower benefits, she will effectively keep only 10 cents of every extra dollar she makes.
Isn’t it the “point” of making more money to get off the dole? Ryan attacks federal anti-poverty programs as being wasteful, and implies that people don’t necessarily need more money, but just to be “happy” in their circumstance, with the “help” of their “faith” and “community.” But here he reverses himself and claims that making more (considerably) more money in a job is not an“advancement” in “opportunity, “but to be seen as a “step back” by a person who has become “dependent” on government assistance. Again, Ryan shows great contempt for the ethic and pride of working people he clearly does not understand—so typical of Republicans.
Ryan then launches into his “plan,” which he mendaciously calls the “Opportunity Grant Program.” The OG would fold the following programs under its purview:
• The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
• The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
• Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCV)
• Section 521 Rural Rental Assistance Payments
• Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance
• Public Housing Capital and Operating Funds
• Child Care and Development Fund
• The Weatherization Assistance Program
• The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
• Community Development Block Grant (CDBG)
• WIA Dislocated Workers
Now, “block grants” are notorious for their misuse by states and local government, often used not in conjunction with existing state and local programs, but in fact to cancel them out in pursuit of balanced budgets—so that their actual effect is to reduce the effectiveness and reach of anti-poverty programs. Frankly, it seems obvious to me that keeping these programs separate would insure that they are given the proper attention they deserve; putting them under the same umbrella would only confuse any caseworker forced to understand them all and how to utilize them; chaos will be the result.
To get out of poverty, some people need just temporary assistance. But to stay out of poverty, many people need to develop skills and life habits. In administering aid, the federal government has a major influence on low-income housing, transportation, and child care—all of which can help or hinder people trying to get ahead. Far too often, federal aid is fragmented and formulaic; it doesn’t coordinate these services to help people achieve their goals.
So how does low-income housing, transportation and child care assistance “hinder” people trying to “get ahead”? It doesn’t, but Ryan isn’t here to talk about what “works,” but to imply that everything that the government is doing now “isn’t.”
But there are organizations that do provide such comprehensive assistance, such as Catholic Charities. These groups focus on the unique needs of each family and help people develop their individual strengths. It is their intimate knowledge of the people they serve—as well as their ability to take the long view—that makes these groups so successful. They are more effective than distant federal bureaucracies for a simple reason: They don’t just relieve the pain of poverty; they give people the means to get out of poverty.
Here we go again: Faith, community and assorted “volunteer” services do better. I have news for Ryan: The aid such services provide is short-term, too little and tend to be very discriminatory about who “qualifies” for assistance. They don’t do any of the things described here, or at least not for long or enough.
Providers must be held accountable, and so should recipients. Each beneficiary will sign a contract with consequences for failing to meet the agreed-upon benchmarks. At the same time, there should also be incentives for people to go to work. Under each life plan, if the individual meets the benchmarks ahead of schedule, then he or she could be rewarded. For example, if the goal of an individual’s plan is to find a job within six months, and he or she starts working within three months, he or she could receive a bonus. Bonuses could take a number of creative forms, such as a savings bond.
Now things are getting really interesting. “Could be rewarded” for achieving “benchmarks” by receiving a “bonus”? What if the individual doesn’t meet the “benchmark” of finding employment within the “agreed upon” time frame in the “contract” they are forced to sign to receive anti-poverty assistance—particularly if through no fault of effort? Note that Ryan already spoke of poverty of being a “complex” issue; now he is saying that it is just as easy as signing a contract stating that you will have a job, or else, in a set amount of time. There are jobs just waiting for you to take, if you only get off your lazy fundament. But it gets “better”:
First, each state will approve a list of certified providers that are held accountable for providing quality service and achieving results (such as moving people to work, out of poverty, and off of assistance).
Next, a person will select a provider, and the provider will conduct a comprehensive assessment of that person’s needs, abilities, and circumstances.
Then, the two of them will develop a customized plan to address the recipient’s needs. The plan could take the form of a contract—with sanctions for failing and bonuses for exceeding expectations. The plan would offer financial assistance to address immediate needs, like food, clothing, child care, and housing. But it would also work on setting goals, learning skills, and developing a broader support system.
At the most basic level, successful completion of a contract will involve an able-bodied individual obtaining a job and earning enough to live above the poverty line. Each state may choose to define success slightly differently insofar as those basic conditions are met.
Unlike formulaic federal programs, case management can provide a holistic kind of aid—one that takes a fuller view of each person’s wants and needs.
If this all sounds like pie-in-sky fantasia, it is. First off, Ryan proposed to establish a whole new bureaucracy of red tape and confusion by creating the position of “provider”—or “life coach”—who will sit down with a recipient and propose a “plan” on how to achieve a sustainable long-term existence. In theory it sounds just great, but how many providers will there be, and how much time and resources will they be able to bring to individual cases? I can tell you from experience that the “help” that such people can “provide” is extremely limited—especially given the fact that what qualifies as “needy” is subject to the “interpretation” of such by others not personally involved.
Our current system of formulaic aid is focused on treating the symptoms of poverty. Case management, however, can see the potential in its clients and help them get out of poverty. By allowing for flexibility, the OG could empower state and local providers to give personalized, customized aid that mitigates the disincentives of high marginal tax rates and counteracts the federal government’s traditional one-size-fits-all approach.
The operative word, as we have seen before, is “could.” States under this plan will not be required to provide “personalized” assistance that provides a “holistic” approach. Note too the mention of “high marginal tax rates” which we usually hear in terms of the very wealthy; one suspects that this is right-wing ploy to twist the lack of sympathy for rich (as the rich do to the poor) when it is generally believed that the rich don’t pay enough taxes on their wasteful largesse. After all, Republicans always complain that the poor don’t pay their “fair share” in taxes, so whose leg is Ryan trying to pull now?
Childless workers, on the other hand, receive relatively few benefits from the EITC. In 2011, for example, they received just 3 percent of all EITC funding.34 Under current law, childless workers can receive a maximum credit of only $496, whereas a single earner with three or more children can receive as much as $6,143.
What is being referred to here is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which I never knew I qualified for until Turbo Tax told me so.
Not surprisingly, the EITC has significantly reduced poverty among families with children, but it has done relatively little to reduce poverty among childless workers.
Well, here is something I can agree with.
As a result, there’s a growing consensus to expand the EITC for childless workers—for a number of reasons. Most importantly, labor-force participation among young adults has dropped precipitously in recent years. In addition, labor-force participation among men with a high-school degree or less has declined by 14.2 percentage points since 1973 and about 8 percentage points since 1990, though some of this decline may be the inevitable result of an aging population. The unemployment rate for those with less than a high-school degree is 9.1 percent—well above the norm. Given the EITC’s success in boosting work among families with children, a larger EITC should have a similar effect on childless workers.
Well, alright. Does this mean Ryan is proposing a boost in the EITC for single workers? But what is the point? Again, people want work not just because they need money, but out of self-respect and societal expectations. There is no reason to think that people are factoring the EITC into the equation; as I just mentioned before, I didn’t even know I qualified for it, but even if I did that wouldn’t be a disincentive for me from seeking employment.
This shared responsibility means the federal government cannot solve all the problems in education. Whenever the federal government grows too large—too cumbersome and too obtrusive—it becomes less of a conduit and more of an obstacle. States, local governments, and other community groups must take the lead in reforming elementary and secondary education. And, of course, the greatest responsibility for a child’s education lies with the family. That’s why public policies that encourage work and a stable home life are key.
Again, Ryan gives state and local government way too much credit. Both discriminate against such groups as “able-bodied single males” regardless of their need, affordable housing availability is years away once you even get on a list, and “volunteer” organizations are extremely limited in their scope and resources. Perhaps Ryan suggests that these organization can do better with additional federal funds, but the truth of the matter is that on the federal level there is much less “discrimination” involved in who “qualifies” for assistance, especially when you have, say, female state DSHS workers who only see women with or without children as being within the purview of their “help.”
But the federal government can do a better job. Kerry Searle Grannis and Isabel Sawhill argue that direct aid at key moments in children’s lives can help close the achievement gap. To make the federal aid intended to close this gap more effective, this proposal focuses on areas of intervention where the current system is broken and local reforms are not sufficient to fix it. Aid is concentrated on those who will benefit most from help: the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Funding is distributed to individuals when possible, then to local and state governments, to ensure those closest to the problem are empowered. Reforms are intended to disrupt the status quo’s shortcomings and encourage innovation while ensuring flexibility for individuals and states. By engaging in reforms along these principles, the federal government can help close the achievement gap by expanding access to education.
Good god, what a bad case of gibberitis. Now Ryan proposes giving money directly to people, but to what purpose? Not to worry, here are his “ideas”:
To make sure aid flows to the most vulnerable, post-secondary institutions must work to ensure federal aid supplements, not supplants, their own efforts to support low-income students. Stephen Burd says there is extensive evidence that “many schools are engaged in an elaborate shell game: using Pell Grants to supplement institutional aid they would have provided to financially needy students otherwise, and then shifting these funds to help recruit wealthier students.
What happened? What does this have to do with closing the “achievement gap” of children when they are young? I told you there were “holes” in Ryan’s “plan.” Well, anyways, I thought that Ryan said that state and local sources do “better” with handing out aid money than on the federal level, where these grants are given directly to the “needy” person. Here it is suggested exactly what I suggested before: In the hands of state and local governments, aid money is either misused or not going to those who need it.
[Enrollment managers try to increase] the ‘yield rate’ for the most desirable prospects―typically academic stars and those willing to pay more or all of the tuition (‘full pays’). . . . In the least desirable categories (usually poor students with lower test scores) accepted students are often ‘gapped’―given a fraction of what they would need to attend, even after the maximum possible contribution from their families. . . . Called ‘admit-deny,’ this practice allows a college to keep poor students out while publically claiming that it doesn’t consider a student’s finances when making admission decisions.
At least here Ryan recognizes part of the problem in his “thesis” about increasing “opportunity” for those on the lower-end of the income and social scale. “Opportunity” is mostly for those who are on the “privileged” side of the social and economic scale—mainly white people, and those Asian International students who can afford to pay astronomical tuition fees, and are even more courted for admission, thus further reducing “opportunity” for those most in need of escaping the cycle of poverty.
The federal government has focused most of its attention on the demand-side of the education market. To make college more affordable, it should also work on the supply side. Important changes are already underway: The rise of massive online open courses (MOOCs), for instance, has the potential to provide convenient, lower-cost educational opportunities for millions. But for innovative models to succeed, they need greater credibility. Students who build a customized plan of study need some sort of credential to show employers they have learned the necessary skills. And one way to develop these credentials is to reform the accreditation process
As if schools have not become even less focused on the required skills of a complex society—instead providing kids laptop computers which they take home to play games and watch videos instead of doing any actual “learning”—Ryan suggests that people can take a shortcut to learning new skills without any real proof of practical application. The fact is that “online” or “correspondence” courses do not really take the place of in-class, hands-on learning. Arnold Schwarzenegger got a college “degree” through correspondence courses, but he still was a lousy governor whose English gives the impression of a moron.
But regulatory costs are baked into every good and service, and lower-income households have to contribute a larger share of their income to pay for cost increases resulting from these regulations. As Diana Thomas, an assistant professor of economics at Utah State University, points out, “[R]egulation has a regressive effect: It redistributes wealth from lower-income households to higher-income households by causing lower-income households to pay for risk reduction worth more to the wealthy.”
What isn’t mentioned here is that businesses choose to pass on the cost of regulation from themselves to consumers. And why should we take the word of right-wing economics professors? They are only trying to “prove” their “point” by conning the poor to look at things as in their interest, rather than the reality that regulation is much more opposed by businesses and the wealthy for their own reasons.
As a result, regulations come with a hidden but very real cost that can greatly exceed the benefits to low-income families. These expensive regulations eat up households’ disposable income and thereby crowd out their ability to mitigate risks that are far more imminent for them. For example, having less disposable income makes it harder for families to purchase healthy food, which is more expensive than junk food and can help mitigate the risk of heart disease and other health problems, or move their families to a safer, but more expensive neighborhood.
Note that Ryan doesn’t blame industry that maximizes profit and compensates its executives outrageous amounts as the reason why workers don’t have enough money. It’s all “government’s” fault, when deregulation—especially in regard to financial services and Wall Street, which has been the culprit in the most damaging economic downturns—is the enemy of the people and the “friend” of the wealthy who are only motivated by greed.
Ryan then goes into an exhaustive exposition about the loss of “opportunity” due to incarceration. He does suggest that petty, non-violent criminals—especially in drug-related crimes—should not be subject to onerous federal sentencing guidelines, and instead be provided a path to useful citizenry. I don’t have any particular problem with any of this, only that again, states have proved that they are poor stewards of such programs.
Ryan’s “plan” ends, curiously, by suggesting that low-income people can really just solve all their problems by “saving” money and putting it in retirement accounts. I wonder what he is implying by this typical right-wing suggestion? I mean, why even suggest this when he knows that low-income people are on relief because they don’t have enough to live on to begin with? Just more right-wing doubletalk.
The bottom line is that Ryan tries to fake it that he “empathizes” with and “understands” the problems of the poor, but he doesn’t at all. He doesn’t take into account the dearth of jobs in the inner city, he doesn’t take into account the greed of employers, he doesn’t take into account hiring discrimination, and he doesn’t take into account the issue of “opportunity” at all. The perception that “opportunity” is out of reach for millions s because the “privileged” class have decided to put barriers (so-called “merit-based”) to deny them the ability to achieve “upward mobility.” This whole exercise is a farce.