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

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.

Structural racism, income inequality, the low minimum wage, lack of education, job training, and the host of other factors that provide a fuller picture of how the majority of people become poor rarely enter into it. Poor people are just lazy, they suggest, and, to quote an oft-repeated phrase, lack “the dignity of work.”

Racial code and the “dignity of work”
“Dignity of work” doubles, as well, as one of the lazy arguments of racial-code politics -- one the Romney campaign has calculated to be especially effective against an African-American opponent. It’s a term casually thrown around for the benefit of a group of what poll watchers say are resentful white voters who look at the Romney campaign’s welfare ads and nod in silent outrage. And although these ads are divisive and factually untrue, they nevertheless achieve results.

Take this one, for example, with its images of Americans, all of them white, ostensibly hard at work. With that footage flashing onscreen, the narrator accuses President Obama of "gutting" the work requirements of welfare reform. (Never mind that there’s no truth to that claim.) That’s a not-too-subtle implication that white Americans work for their money, while the people on welfare (read: black Americans) prefer government handouts. (In fact, the majority of people on welfare are white.)  

As some have pointed out, those Romney campaign ads harken back to an ad run by the campaign of George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988 -- the “Willie Horton” attack ad -- which was notoriously intended to stoke racial fears in America. The subjects may be different -- the Horton ad focused on crime -- but the naked appeal for white votes through racial resentment and prejudice is the same.

Demonization of the poor

Race, nonetheless, is but one element in the vilification of those in poverty. The larger story is about how we, as a society, are primed to resent the poor for their purported drag on economic success.

Romney’s surrogates are quick to tell us about how compassionate the Romneys are, how empathetic, in spite of their immense wealth. The campaign even released an ad recently playing up the candidate’s compassion. But that can hardly erase the fact that, in the 2012 presidential contest, the Romney campaign has added to the demonization of poor and working-class black Americans with its spurious attacks on their morality. There is already a stigma associated with being reliant on government, however temporarily, and for the Romney campaign to add to that demoralization openly speaks to a lack of compassion.

In my own family, I have seen loved ones turn to payday loans -- the worst of the worst when it comes to predatory lending -- rather than rely on government help -- even though they have paid taxes for years into the very safety net for which they’re eligible. But in this way, they protect themselves from being branded as “social parasites” because their take-home pay is sometimes not enough to live on.

While there are no hard numbers, at least one study has shown that some eligible families shy away from seeking government help specifically because of the stigma attached to it. And according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, some of these programs already help significantly fewer families than they used to, which means more families are going to bed hungry or foregoing basic necessities. The New York Times reports that “just one in five poor children now receives cash aid, the lowest level in nearly 50 years,” through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.

There are also reports that people who are eligible for jobless benefits fail to claim them.

What does it say as a society that some Americans reject the very help they need so as not to be subjected to public shaming? Romney’s Republican Party prides itself on being a religious party, so how come sheltering the less fortunate is no longer part of its mandate? Republicans argue that entitlements create a culture of dependency. And I would agree that they do -- in the absence of structure that helps lift people out of poverty. If the underlying goal is to move people from welfare to work and then presumably, into the middle class, where is the focus on educational training, transportation subsidies, child-care services, health care, a sustainable wage? But data after data show that government programs do work and that they have helped a significant amount of people who otherwise would have had nowhere to turn. And many conservatives agree.

As the Brookings Institution has noted, paying lip service to work requirements without equal emphasis on work supports is meaningless. It neither reduces poverty nor welfare dependency. But instead of strengthening the safety net that will cushion poor families when they fall, it looks like the budget the GOP candidates have proposed will promptly tear it to shreds -- no matter how many times Paul Ryan says otherwise.

How is this a winning economic strategy for any future?

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