As a direct counter to President Obama’s recent emphasis on the gap between rich and poor, the upcoming House Republican budget will focus on welfare reform and recommend a sweeping overhaul of social programs, including Head Start and Medicaid.
The push, led by Rep. Paul Ryan, returns the GOP’s attention to a policy front that animated the party in the 1990s and signals Republicans’ desire to expand their pitch to voters ahead of this year’s midterm elections. This new effort comes after the party spent months fixated on combating the federal health-care law and engaged in intraparty squabbles over fiscal strategy.
On Monday, Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman, published an often stinging 204-page critique of the federal government’s anti-poverty policies, questioning the efficacy of dozens of initiatives and underscoring where Republicans say consolidation or spending reductions are needed.
“There are nearly 100 programs at the federal level that are meant to help, but they have actually created a poverty trap,” Ryan said in an interview. “There is no coordination with these programs, and new ones are frequently being added without much consideration to how they affect other programs. We’ve got to fix the situation, and this report is a first step toward significant reform.”
Ryan said the report is a prelude to the House GOP’s budget, which will be unveiled later this month, and a preemptive rebuttal to the president’s budget, which will be released Tuesday.
Read the report
The report, titled “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later,” features analysis of eight areas of federal policy: cash aid, education and job training, energy, food aid, health care, housing, social services, and veterans affairs. Most sections begin with a glance at the state of federal anti-poverty programs 50 years ago, when President Lyndon B. Johnson launched a “war on poverty,” and chart their evolution and expansion.
“This document is a precursor not only of our budget but of our larger project to introduce poverty reforms over the course of this year,” Ryan said. “The president may focus on inequality because he can’t talk about growth. We’re focused on upward mobility, speaking directly to people who have fallen through the cracks.”
Food stamps, low-income housing, and a flurry of other social service programs and tax credits are also targeted in the report. Ryan said Republicans will soon offer specific prescriptions to the problems he outlines. Putting a comprehensive anti-poverty agenda alongside efforts to devise an alternative to the federal health-care law is a GOP priority, he said.
“Let’s have the debate, let’s show where we stand, and then let’s solve the problems,” Ryan said. “It’s time for an adult conversation as well as time to try to pass good, conservative legislation that can make a real difference.”
Ryan’s staff has kept his welfare reform plan quiet — spending weeks polishing the report in the committee’s office in the Cannon Building — as other issues including tax reform, immigration and foreign policy have dominated political talk at the Capitol.
But with many of the fiscal standoffs, such as the one over the debt ceiling, resolved, and with the president hitting the campaign trail to discuss income inequality, Ryan decided in the past week to come forward with his long-brewing report, with hints at many of the topics he will address in the upcoming Republican budget plan.
“He is trying to move us to a place where we ought to go,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an ally of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio.). “Paul Ryan remains our big-ideas guy, and he’s helping us to get beyond statistics and to start talking about these issues in human terms.”
Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate on the GOP presidential ticket in 2012, said Republicans are ready to engage with Democrats on one of the president’s signature issues, hoping to move beyond the rhetoric of past campaigns and provide voters with a sense of which programs they would like to revamp.
Ryan and his aides are unsparing in how they take the hammer to current federal policies. On page after page, the report casts a critical eye on how the government administers money to the poor and related bureaucracies, using a bevy of academic literature and federal studies as evidence.
Ryan said the crux of the report is the conclusion that federal programs need to be entirely reimagined, with more than tweaks or axed appropriations, and that legislation this year should move toward broader solutions that solve what he thinks are structural weaknesses in how the government supports the poor.
“Because these programs are means-tested — meaning that benefits decline as recipients make more money — poor families face very high implicit marginal tax rates,” the report says. “The federal government effectively discourages them from making more money.”
According to the report, Head Start, a federal program for early-childhood education and nutrition, is “failing to prepare children for school,” and “a consolidated, well-funded system would be better.”
Medicaid, which provides health coverage to low-income families, is the object of a sharply worded review. “Medicaid coverage has little effect on patients’ health,” the report says, adding that it imposes an “implicit tax on beneficiaries,” “crowds out private insurance” and “increases the likelihood of receiving welfare benefits.”
The report also suggests that the “breakdown” of the family is one of the main reasons that poverty afflicts so many Americans.
“Perhaps the single most important determinant of poverty is family structure,” the report says. “Poverty is most concentrated among broken families.”
Ryan said the report is a complement to his work on poverty over the past year, when he has traveled with Bob Woodson, a veteran community organizer, to meet with struggling residents of cities such as Cleveland, Indianapolis and San Antonio.
“In visit after visit, I’ve learned that we’ve got to stop measuring success by how much we spend and start measuring success by how much we help,” he said. “That’s the debate we need to shift.”
In recent months, Democrats have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage, part of a campaign to make income inequality a keystone of their 2014 platform and portray the GOP as the less-compassionate party on poverty issues.
“It is time to give America a raise or elect more Democrats who will do it,” Obama said in a speech Friday to Democrats at their winter meeting in Washington.
Democrats on Capitol Hill are skeptical about Ryan’s intentions, and they wonder whether the 44-year-old Republican is serious about working with Obama and other Democrats to pass bipartisan legislation on welfare reform, an issue that last saw major cross-party deliberations in 1996, when House Republicans worked with President Bill Clinton to pass landmark changes.
“The real test is what Republicans will put in their budget this year, and if past is prologue, this report is simply laying the groundwork to slash social safety-net programs,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee. “It’s part of Mitt Romney’s attack on the 47 percent. Now, I hope this time is different, but I fear it won’t be.”
Ryan’s associates said the congressman proved last year, when he brokered a budget deal with Senate Democrats, that he can build consensus across the aisle.
As he crafted the report, Ryan — a former adviser to the late Jack Kemp, a longtime GOP voice on poverty issues — consulted with a diverse group of conservative thinkers. Ryan counselor Yuval Levin, a policy analyst, played an instrumental role, as did the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks and the Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins.
Ryan also huddled with Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of Britain’s Conservative Party. Smith is well known in the United Kingdom for his attempts to better connect conservatives with the poor.
“We’ve been paying very close attention to the Tories and their think tanks,” Ryan said. “They’ve done a lot of work already, and we can learn from their experience, both their mistakes and their successes, so we can rework our welfare system and get people out of poverty and onto lives of self-sufficiency and dignity.”
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that House Republicans will offer a “combination of solutions” to voters this fall and that he supports Ryan as he builds the GOP’s welfare reform plan.
“This conference has grown, with regard to the different things it wants to look at. People used to say we couldn’t talk about these issues,” he said. “Now they have become a framework.”