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The big problem with Paul Ryan’s new poverty plan

Today, Rep. Paul Ryan is unveiling his latest idea to change the federal government’s poverty programs. For someone who is constantly saying how concerned he is about poverty, Ryan’s previous budgets have relied an awful lot on slashing benefits to poor people. But this time, he promises that his proposal doesn’t cut benefits, but merely reorganizes them. Some parts of the proposal might be worthwhile. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s still driven by the longstanding conservative desire to limit the help we give to the poor.

The centerpiece of the proposal is a consolidation of multiple separate programs into a single block grant that would be given to states; they could decide how to dispense the money, and the federal government’s job would essentially be reduced to oversight. States would choose whether or not to participate.

This sounds reasonable until you start to think about how it would play out. In practice, it’s likely that the states most eager to sign on would be precisely those that aren’t too happy about the ways the federal government provides benefits now. The devil would be in the details; what if a state decided to take its entire block grant and devote it to giving lectures to poor people on why they should get married? There could be a lot of needs going unmet while states implement their ideologically-driven visions of how poverty ought to be addressed.

Ryan’s plan assumes that the same Republican states that rejected the federal government’s offer to insure poor citizens through the expansion of Medicaid — in other words, who would rather see poor people go uninsured than get coverage from the government — are now going to be spectacularly committed and creative in working to help those same poor citizens through their time of need. Color me skeptical.

Ryan insists his plan would hold funding for these programs constant, not cut them. But it’s more complicated than that. Conservatives have long advocated block-granting of poverty programs, always with the justification that states will better deliver assistance to poor Americans if they aren’t hamstrung by requirements from Washington. But there’s little evidence that block granting accomplishes anything other than making it easier for these programs to be cut in future years or simply whittled away by inflation. As Jared Bernstein points out, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which we used to call “welfare,” was block-granted in 1996 and has since then seen its value slashed by 30 percent in inflation-adjusted terms.

One of the real dangers of Ryan’s approach is that it would render the programs unable to deal with economic downturns unless Congress stepped in and supplied more money, which would be unlikely as long as Republicans control at least one house. So for instance, right now the food stamp program is an entitlement; if you meet eligibility standards you’re entitled to food stamps. The program can never run out of money in a given year. When the Great Recession hit, millions of Americans found themselves newly out of work and thus eligible for food stamps.

But under Ryan’s program, food stamps would be part of a block grant whose total amount is fixed. If and when another recession hit, states would be flooded with people who needed assistance, but they’d have the same limited sum of money they got at the beginning of the year. So they’d either have to turn people away or find a way to rob Peter to pay Paul, taking money out of other poverty programs to meet the increased need for food.

(There’s a brief discussion of inserting a provision into the plan to account for this kind of eventuality, but it seems neither particularly well thought-out nor nearly adequate to address what could be a major need.)

Ryan’s plan would also require “accountability” from those receiving assistance, in the form of time-limited benefits and work requirements (how you satisfy those requirements when people can’t find work is its own sad story). This too is a hallmark of the Republican approach to poverty programs, in which poor people have to jump through hoops to demonstrate their moral worth to get benefits. “Accountability” is something that is required of poor people, and only poor people. Farmers who get government subsidies don’t have to be “accountable.” Nor do government contractors who waste huge amounts of taxpayer money. Only the poor are forced to pee in a cup or account for their time or endure a hundred other petty humiliations, so we can be sure that if they get any government assistance they have proven themselves to be morally upstanding enough to deserve help.

That isn’t to say there’s nothing worthwhile in Ryan’s proposal. As he writes in a USA Today op-ed, “Right now, you have to go to a bunch of different offices to enroll in a bunch of different programs, often with different paperwork requirements and eligibility standards. Under the Opportunity Grant, you could go to one office and work with one person.” As anyone who has tried to apply for assistance knows, the paperwork requirements seem designed to hold down enrollment by making it as difficult as possible to apply. Streamlining that process would be terrific.

While this plan isn’t going to become law (at least not any time soon), it does serve a political purpose of showing that Republicans are thinking about poverty, and Ryan isn’t the only one in his party trying to revive “compassionate conservatism.” We can give him credit for addressing the issue. If only there was more reason to believe his ideas would do much to help Americans who are struggling.