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Ryan's Prescription for the Poor: End Anti-Poverty Programs

Government anti-poverty programs, Ryan suggested at an Ohio campaign stop, are bad because, in his view, they render the poor into bad and lazy people.

Photo Credit: C-SPAN


In his first major economic policy address since he was elevated to the vice presidential spot on the Republican ticket, Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, laid out an agenda fraught with a condescending moralistic attitude toward poor people that has defined the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney.

Government anti-poverty programs Ryan suggested, are bad for the poor because, in his view, they render the poor into a morally bankrupt  and lazy people. “The problem is, starting in the 1960s, this top-down approach created and perpetuated a debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities,” Ryan told a gathering at Cleveland State University in Ohio on Wednesday.
“The truth is, Mitt and I believe in true compassion and upward mobility – and we are offering a vision based on real reforms for lifting people out of poverty,” Ryan continued.

But Ryan’s promise to the poor seemed to be about as authentic as his campaign stop last week at a soup kitchen, where, without asking permission of the charity’s managers, he donned an apron for the press corps cameras and washed what observers said were already clean pans.

Ryan’s idea of reform is to remove federal oversight from federal poverty alleviation programs, allowing states to spend federal dollars as they see fit. One need only look at Texas, where the state pulled contraceptive access for poor women, to see how well this might work. The other parts of the Ryan/Romney plan seem equally heartless: pulling money from public school systems for “school choice” and ending job-training programs, while cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans. 

The Ryan budget, passed by the House earlier this year, cuts Medicaid, the federal health-care program for the poor by $1.4 trillion, which, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, “would almost inevitably result in dramatic reductions in coverage.” It goes on to gut the food stamp program, cutting the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit -- which a new study says have all been shown to reduce poverty.

In his Cleveland speech, however, Ryan didn’t mention those tax-cuts for the wealthy: he talked of cutting taxes on the middle class -- the “regular people” who, in the Ryan scheme, are a distinct breed from those who live in dire straights.

Regular people

On my way to work sometimes, I pass a homeless shelter where residents are seen milling outside the front of the building. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked that block and watched people stop ahead of me, look toward the building, then look away before crossing the street to get on with their “regular people” lives of jobs, educations, and families. But the people who live at that shelter are regular people, too, and the notion that you, me, or our friends, are all too smart, responsible, and educated to become poor is not only ridiculous, but a total lie.

Like Paul Ryan, I was raised Catholic. And while the religion no longer dictates my faith to such an awesome degree as it once did, the issue of poverty will forever animate the long-lost Catholicism in me. I can’t detach myself from what is arguably the most important religious teaching I learned in Sunday school: Strive, above all else, to help the poor.

But when I look at the Republican platform, I notice there’s a deep fissure between the Republican budget proposal crafted by Ryan and this religious teaching. Perhaps that’s why Network, the Catholic social justice organization, launched its Nuns on the Bus tour last summer to challenge the Ryan budget -- and reaffirm the Catholic teaching that the less fortunate should never be forgotten.

Yet even as Ryan and Romney claim that a Romney presidency will slash unemployment and create millions of jobs, the implication by way of their campaign strategy is that poor people would rather draw a government benefit check than earn a paycheck. Worse, they imply that the poor remain so because of an inherent moral failing. It’s inescapable that there are those who make bad choices, but as Barbara Ehrenreich once said: “Poverty is a shortage of money.” And there is nothing riskier than that.

The 47 percent

According to Census Bureau data, there were 46.2 million Americans living below the poverty line in 2011. Contrary to what economists predicted, numbers remained largely unchanged from the previous year, said the bureau: “After three consecutive years of increases, neither the poverty rate nor the number of people in poverty were statistically different from the 2010 estimates.”

Nonetheless, conservatives insist on pushing the notion that poor people are poor because they simply don’t work hard enough, don’t try hard enough, or would rather not work at all. That was the essence of the message delivered by Romney to wealthy donors in that famous, secretly recorded video. In his remarks, the Republican presidential candidate described the 47 percent of Americans of retirement age or whose incomes are too low to require them to pay ordinary income tax as people who “see themselves as victims” who feel “entitled” to food, housing and health care.

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