The most amusing parts of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan rollout were the boilerplate emails from left-wing groups and Democratic offices thundering about things that were not in the plan. How dare he slash funds for the poor! Actually, there is no mention of that, nor is saving money an objective of the plan.
A Republican House senior adviser explained to me that they expect, but haven’t determined, that it will be roughly revenue neutral. Some items may reduce costs (e.g., work programs that take people off welfare) while others require more money (e.g., job training, mentoring at-risk youths). Ryan is certainly right that the left is so used to measuring and defending inputs that they automatically assume Republicans are seeking to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.
We noted yesterday that block granting, a favorite reform of Ryan’s, was not in the plan. Neither was the expansion of the earned-income tax credit. Ryan’s adviser says Ryan still likes block granting but that this was a member-driver process, and some members did not feel comfortable with that. They reached consensus on proposals to grant waivers and give more flexibility to states. As for the EITC, many Republicans remain convinced that this is an opportunity for fraud. There are, however, reforms that could be adopted to reduce fraud; unfortunately, the members did not choose to combine those with expansion of the program.
There are several “big ideas” behind the many individual programs.
The first is that there needs to be a way of measuring outcomes, not simply the dollars spent and the number of programs created. That in and of itself is somewhat revolutionary, which gives one an appreciation for how the welfare state can become a self-serving vehicle with no accountability. The House actually began to work on this last year. (“The first step in creating a culture of evidence-based policymaking is to determine what data is available and how policymakers can use it. The Evidence-Based Policy Commission Act of 2015, signed into law on March 30, 2016, will bring together leading researchers, program administrators, and experts to conduct a thorough study of existing infrastructure and statistical protocols. They will consider various methods of ensuring that policymakers have the access they need while balancing personal privacy and data-integrity interests, and make recommendations on how to approach the issue of federal data access.”) Other proposals include a private-sector model for research. “First, fund the development and preliminary testing of new ideas. Second, rigorously evaluate those concepts that pass the first stage to determine if they really work. And third, fund the expansion of programs that have proven to be effective. ”
The plan got an enthusiastic reception from liberal anti-poverty policy advocate Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. He praised the report as “full of good ideas” and commended it for blending scholarly analysis with political agenda items. He singled out the emphasis on evidence-based programs:
A notable characteristic of today’s report is the emphasis on evidence, to which an entire section of the report is devoted. Especially important is the discussion of the Evidence-Based Policy Commission, recently created and guided through Congress to a presidential signature by Ryan and his Democratic Senate colleague Patty Murray. Who said there’s no bipartisan cooperation in Washington! Yes, discussions of evidence tend to induce yawns among Washington insiders and the public. But if the evidence-based proposals released today by Ryan became standard procedure in Washington and state capitals, especially by executive agencies, the nation would know a lot more about effective ways to address our nation’s most pressing social policy problems.
In addition to shifting to an outcome-based framework for fighting poverty, the House plan embraces an idea many Democrats have supported: Social Impact Financing (SIF):
[It] is a financing mechanism used to raise private-sector capital to expand effective social programs. Under this model: 1. Government determines a desired social outcome and agrees to pay for that outcome; 2. An intermediary identifies a service provider, arranges for private investors to fund the services, and monitors progress. 3. If the agreed-upon outcome is achieved—usually a cost savings or a socially beneficial result—the government reimburses the intermediary (who pays investors) for its expenses plus a return based on the program’s success. If the outcome is not achieved, the government does not pay. SIF shifts the risk of achieving the outcome from the government to the private sector, as taxpayer funds are spent only if desired outcomes are achieved. As a result, SIF helps drive innovation and competition in the social-service sector. SIF can also provide more flexibility for service providers and ensure increased accountability for results.
This does not mean all anti-poverty efforts would run in this fashion, but some could. If you read through the plan, there is plenty of emphasis on building community ties and using local groups who’ve created successful programs. From the GOP’s standpoint, this is classic federalism with a nod to civil society; a pleasant, unintended consequence might also be a less atomized society and more opportunities for contact across different social and economic classes and ethnic groups.
Third, the plan looks at education from pre-K through post-high school with the assumption that the federal government plays a key role. Instead of eliminating Head Start, which has proved not have long-lasting effects, House Republicans want to “combine fragmented federal investments to better support states and local communities in their goal of providing high-quality child care and educational opportunities. For example, the federal government can provide information and research about best practices across the country.” On K-12, as one might expect, House Republicans want to increase school choice programs building on the success of programs like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. House Republicans also want to put effort into improving and expanding career and technical education (CTE) in the high school and post-high school level. While the emphasis on flexibility and experimentation remains, the federal government would continue as the prime funder and data collector. Nowhere do you see the phrase: “Eliminate the Department of Education.”
There is a lot in the 35-page effort beyond welfare/work programs and education. Other proposals address nutrition, postsecondary reforms, attention to at-risk youth and banking access. (Straying a bit from traditional anti-poverty policy design, the plan also includes a number of retirement proposals.) If it does not seem “very Republican,” it may be because the goal here is not to shrink the safety net but to redesign it. There is an implicit recognition that the federal government is not going to get out of the poverty-fighting arena.
You can see why liberal groups and House Democrats concocted proposals to criticize. What will be their complaint — able-bodied adults should not be required to work? (The vast majority of Americans think they should.) We shouldn’t measure results? We don’t want to draw on local expertise? Instead of reflexively criticizing the other party’s plans, maybe there is actual common ground on addressing some stubborn social issues. That’d be novel.