Some folks on the left are miffed that Republicans and conservatives are talking a lot lately about poverty. Maybe they think the attention to the issue is disingenuous. Perhaps they don’t like that the “War on Poverty” isn’t accepted by many on the right as a roaring and unquestioned success. Or maybe they don’t like center-right policy ideas. Probably all of the above.
Anyway, this unhelpful attitude certainly seems present in a New York Times editorial about the new poverty report put forward by Paul Ryan’s House Budget Commitee. The study documents the 92 federal programs, spending some $800 billion annually, designed to help lower-income Americans. Team NYT :
Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman, has an important role to play within the Republican Party. He provides polished intellectual cover for his party to mow down as many antipoverty programs as it can see. Most Congressional Republicans would love nothing more than to eviscerate programs like Medicaid, Head Start and food stamps. But so as not to appear cruel and uncaring, they need a high-minded excuse to do so.
And the piece goes on from there in a similar manner. Now I don’t know what Ryan is going to propose to reform a system that he suggests creates a poverty trap rather than exit. He has spoken favorably, for instance, about a British idea to merge means-tested programs into a single mean-tested credit.
But at the heart of the Ryan critique, as I see it, is that the War on Poverty has enhanced material well being but not opportunity. The official poverty rate is roughly where it was 50 years. Now that measure is “flawed” in that it fails to includes the value of government assistance programs, and thus gives a misleading picture of incomes at the bottom. But this calculation has an upside, too, says AEI’s Robert Doar:
In leaving out all that government does to help the poor, the official measure focuses on what poor Americans are able to earn for themselves. It is a measure of their independence and ability to work and earn a sufficient amount to support themselves and their families on their own – which is what they want. … So while government programs are clearly helping the poor escape the material want that comes with low earnings, our economy and our government interventions are not providing sufficient opportunity for them to do what they want to do more than anything.
America needs to advance the War on Poverty by providing greater opportunity and upward mobility for the poor. The Ryan poverty report is an appropriate opening move in this new mission.