After months of work, Paul Ryan and other Republicans in the House released a proposal on how to help poor Americans on Tuesday. The document is one of several that the speaker hopes will offer a clear conservative agenda amid what has been a chaotic presidential campaign.
The proposal, however, contains few specific recommendations for changes in policy. Ideas that Ryan and other GOP policymakers have advanced in the past are conspicuously absent. Instead, the document's conclusions are carefully worded in terms of broad conservative principles.
Much of the rest of the text focuses on non-ideological questions such as improving coordination between agencies, gathering more data to aid in the design of policy and making more information available to the public.
As The Washington Post's Kelsey Snell and Mike DeBonis report, the document's tone is a result of disagreements within his caucus that the Republican from Wisconsin wasn't able to overcome. "Many of the specific policy prescriptions aimed at addressing the problems identified in the paper were left out because members couldn’t agree on details such as how to prevent waste and fraud, according to aides," they write.
What isn't in the report suggests there are continuing philosophical divisions among Republicans about the proper relationship of government vis-a-vis society and the economy — divisions that could make advancing legislation difficult for Ryan.
"Paul Ryan has put a much-ballyhooed agenda on the table," said a skeptical Democratic whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), addressing the liberal Center for American Progress on Tuesday. "I predict to you there will be no bills on the floor of the House of Representatives in the next three or four months that will implement the suggestions he's put forward."
Waste and fraud
Ryan is one of many policymakers on both the left and the right who offer high praise for the earned-income tax credit, which his staff called "one of the federal government's most effective anti-poverty programs" in a report he released in 2014.
The credit gives poor workers a wad of cash — $3,100, on average, for families with children in 2013 — and it increases in value with their earnings, encouraging them to put in more hours and to push for a raise. Both liberal and conservative experts say it helps poor families make ends meet while giving them a sense that their work is valued.
In 2014, Ryan and his aides at the Committee on the Budget called for expanding the earned-income tax credit for workers without children. Yet the credit is mentioned in Tuesday's proposal primarily as a subject of criticism.
The report points out that the credit is among the federal programs with the highest rate of improper payments. Twenty-four percent of money paid out in credits last year went to people who did not qualify for them, according to the Treasury Department. Many conservative policymakers see those improper payments — which totaled almost $16 billion last year — as a prime example of governmental waste.
The debate among Republicans over this tax credit results from the tension between two basic conservative goals: encouraging people to work and reducing inefficiency in government. The only recommendation on the credit in Tuesday's report is the inoffensive suggestion that the government use technology better to prevent improper payments.
This contradiction between promoting work and controlling costs is the source of one of the fundamental puzzles of welfare: how to design programs that focus resources on the people who need them the most without cutting them off if things improve for them.
To qualify for various kinds of public assistance, Americans' incomes generally must be below certain thresholds. These limits ensure that the government spends money on people who really need it. On the other hand, many conservative policymakers worry that these limits discourage the poor from working. If they put in more hours, they'll effectively have to give up some of their income when they no longer qualify for help.
Economists who have studied how public assistance affects recipients' willingness to work generally find that the problem is a small one. Today's programs usually require recipients to work anyway, or they offer benefits such as food stamps or health insurance that force recipients to work for cash they need for other staples.
All the same, a few programs do seem to discourage some beneficiaries from working, notably subsidized housing. One study of a housing lottery in Chicago found that those who did not win vouchers earned about $1,300 a year more than those who did.
The House GOP report contains a long section on this puzzle, replete with charts. Citing data from researchers at the nonpartisan Urban Institute, the authors of the report point out that families on the margin of poverty can sometimes lose more in public benefits than they earn in additional income when their wages increase.
One way to solve the problem would be to extend benefits to people who are better off, giving those who aren't another reason to work: They won't risk losing public assistance if they move into the middle class. Doing so would make the programs much more expensive, however.
The other solution policymakers might take to promote employment would be to reduce benefits for the poor, so they have less to lose by working. The authors of the GOP report shy away from such nakedly punitive measures.
The authors have little in the way of suggestions for fixing the problem, though, instead arguing simply that states should have "more flexibility" to come up with solutions on their own.
Similar tensions seem to emerge in the report's brief section on food stamps.
Since the financial crisis, the Obama administration has allowed states to waive stringent requirements for able-bodied adults who don't have children at home. The rules effectively require recipients in this category to have a job to continue receiving food stamps — just looking for work isn't enough — but the president has the authority to waive them during hard times.
The number of able-bodied adults in this group receiving food stamps increased from 1.7 million in 2007 to 4.9 million in 2013. Concerned by these figures, rejecting the federal waivers and reinstating the strict rules has been a major priority for GOP policymakers in a number of states.
Republicans in the House voted to do the same nationwide in 2013, approving a bill sponsored by then-Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who was the majority leader at the time.
Tuesday's report notes this concern, after pointing out that the overwhelming majority of recipients of food stamps are children and their parents.
"There is an increasing number of recipients who are work-capable adults without dependents. Unfortunately, recent data suggests many of them are not working or preparing for work," the authors write.
They say nothing about putting the rules back in place, though. "Part of our effort to reform the welfare system includes identifying policies that prevent or discourage working-age people from obtaining work or preparing for work," the authors conclude.
Another provision of Cantor's 2013 bill would have allowed states to test recipients of food stamps for drug use. Some states already have similar authority over people receiving assistance in cash, and recent legislation in several states requires beneficiaries to test clean.
There is nothing about drug testing in the new report from the House GOP, however. It is not clear why, but again, the notion of testing tens of millions of Americans for drugs points to familiar questions about conservative ideology.
Socially conservative Republicans might argue that addiction prevents people from getting steady employment and that taxpayers shouldn't be asked to give money to people who are using what little they have on illegal substances.
Michael Strain, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said in a recent interview that while enforcing certain behaviors can help people get ahead, those who make mistakes deserve help as well.
"I think that a certain degree of paternalism is appropriate in these programs," he said, but he added, "We have a moral obligation to make sure that people don't fall too far, regardless of why they're falling."
Meanwhile, libertarians raise constitutional objections to this kind of governmental intrusion into Americans' private lives. "There's no reason to treat food stamp recipients ... as moral defectives," wrote Nick Gillespie, the editor in chief of the libertarian magazine Reason.