Watching Republicans try to come up with a plan to fight poverty is like watching a rock plan to learn how to swim. The entire enterprise is doomed from the start.
Today, Paul Ryan and the House Republicans released their anti-poverty plan—billed as “a blueprint for reforming our welfare, workforce, and education programs that will empower Americans to achieve the American Dream.” Republicans have an odd conception of what it means to fight poverty. For them, it does not mean “helping poor people” as much as it means “saving money on helping poor people.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Republicans vague document—which will almost certainly be forgotten long before any of its tepid proposals become law, and is most usefully seen as a window into the psyche of Paul Ryan—is that it is built around the idea of reforming the American welfare system, primarily by shrinking it. Yes, efficiency is good; cutting waste and fraud are fine; and ensuring that there are not economic disincentives for people to get off welfare and take jobs is common sense. But tweaking the bureaucracy of the welfare system so that it operates a little more smoothly is not an anti-poverty plan! It is just... a plan to save a few bucks on services for the poor.
Consider the plan’s four-step prescription to “repair the safety net” and “expand opportunity”:
1. Expect work-capable adults to work or prepare for work in exchange for welfare benefits;
2. Get incentives right so everyone benefits when someone moves from welfare to work;
3. Measure the results;
4. Focus support on the people who need it most.
Do you see any increase in assistance to poor people in those four steps? No. What you see is a prescription for pushing people off public assistance. An odd orientation for an anti-poverty plan! Even if Republicans were able to reform the inefficient welfare system to their dream specifications, the relatively minor savings would accrue to large taxpayers more than to people on welfare. On point after point, we hear Republicans call for “Prioritizing Services that Work”—not a strategy that anyone is opposed to, as far as I know, except to the extent that the phrase means “Do away with anti-poverty services that are deemed not to ‘work,’ by House Republicans.” Elsewhere, the plan devolves into hilariously toothless pablum. For example, the actual “Policy Recommendations” for “Strengthening America’s Higher Education System” read, “To help strengthen the limited yet important federal role in higher education, Congress should work to empower individuals to make informed decisions, simplify and improve student aid, promote innovation, access, and completion, and ensurestrong accountability for taxpayers.”
Will Congress also encourage Americans to be good and nice? Only time will tell.
Fighting poverty in America will, one way or another, involve pushing wealth down the economic ladder. It will involve, one way or another, taking some of the wealth that is concentrated in very few hands at the very, very top, and putting that wealth to work helping those at the bottom. It will involve, one way or another, taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Until Republicans are prepared to do that, they are wasting everyone’s time.