paul ryan

With the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s War on Poverty just around the bend, Congressman Paul Ryan has taken it upon himself to assess the effectiveness of America’s poverty programs over the last few decades. And he is not pleased:

We’ve spent approximately $15 trillion and the question we ought to be asking ourselves is, ‘where are we?’ With a 15 percent poverty rate today — the highest in a generation — and with 46 million people in poverty, I would argue it’s not working very well…

…our goal in these programs is not to make poverty easier to handle and tolerate and live with, our goal in these programs ought to be to give people a temporary hand so that they can get out of poverty.

Ryan and his Republican colleagues believe that not only are our poverty programs failing (as evidenced by all the poor people we have), but they are counterproductive, seducing Americans into the “poverty trap,” wherein they become permanently reliant on overly generous government subsidies instead of finding more work. If we stop subsidizing laziness, we will save money, and people will learn to care for themselves. Republicans believe this is how you go from giving a man a fish to teaching a man to fish. This is why each of Ryan’s yearly budget proposals have included drastic reductions to nondiscretionary spending, which will sap funding for low-income programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and it’s why Ryan recently advocated for devastating cuts to the food stamp program (now called SNAP), as did many other House Republicans.

But this view of events ignores the fact that we don’t have enough aggregate demand to support full employment (or anything close to it) in this economy. For the last four and a half years, we have had at least three times as many job-seekers as we have had jobs (including almost seven times as many job-seekers in the summer of 2009). We aren’t lacking in motivated workers, or elbow grease, or personal responsibility, we are lacking in available work. And during sustained downturns such as this, you need federal assistance more than ever.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, based on long experience, anticipated Ryan’s line of attack on the poverty programs, and came out with a direct response outlining the effectiveness of programs like SNAP and the EITC. They also released a paper finding that in 2011, public programs lifted 40 million Americans out of poverty.

But wait, there’s more:

Researchers have identified long-term payoffs to programs like SNAP, EITC, early childhood education, and Pell Grants. Research shows that income supports like the EITC and CTC both boost employment rates among parents and have long-term positive impacts on children — including better school performance — that can translate into higher earnings when the children become adults. Similarly, a recent study that examined what happened in the 1960s and 1970s — when government first introduced food stamps county by county — found that children born to poor women who had access to food stamps had better health outcomes.

Not only do these programs help alleviate some of the immediate economic pressure on struggling parents, they greatly improve learning and health outcomes for children, with lasting benefits that carry on into adulthood. One longitudinal study the CBPP report looked at found that children who received an extra $3000 a year in assistance during early childhood earned 17% more a year as adults.

You see, the poverty trap is a real thing, but Republicans like Ryan completely misunderstand how it works. Being poor is a constant struggle just to scratch out a daily existence. If you’re an adult and don’t have reliable food for yourself or your kids (let alone daycare), if you missed your last bill and don’t have running water or electricity or internet access, if stress or depression are affecting your decision-making ability, etc., finding a job is damn tough. If you’re a poor kid, learning is hard on an empty stomach, or without a good night’s sleep, or a parent with enough free time to help with homework, and so on. (That’s leaving out the prep school, tutors, summer camps, and other advantages wealthy parents can afford.)

The average SNAP allotment is less than five dollars a person per day. The average EITC refund last year was $2,200 (and you won’t even come close to that if you don’t have kids). We aren’t talking about extravagant programs here. And in light of the crushing recession we have been trying to dig ourselves out of, we should really be talking about expanding these programs, not shrinking them. These are banal points, but it’s worth reiterating that while these programs don’t solve everything, they do have a measurable impact not only on the men and women who immediately benefit from them, but on the futures of their children, as well.

On top of that, they benefit the economy as a whole. Programs like SNAP, EITC and unemployment insurance are some of the most stimulative federal spending, because they are given to low- and middle-income families who will quickly spend it to buy daily necessities. Economists estimate that every dollar spent on food stamps generates an additional $1.73 elsewhere, and a dollar spent on the EITC generates $1.50. All told, that is hundreds of billions of dollars of badly needed economic activity.

Though it’s refreshing to see someone from either party talk about these issues (try playing “poverty” Bingo during an Obama speech), and to see that Ryan understands his party is losing the perception battle on this, he as yet to propose anything that looks like a serious attempt at addressing poverty and unemployment. A lot of these half-baked ideas already helped the Romney/Ryan campaign lose an election. Teaching men (and women) to fish requires more than just saying, “go fish.” Sometimes, there ain’t no fish to be had. Ryan’s mentor, the late Jack Kemp, understood that. I look forward to the day when modern members of the Republican party do, too.

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Devin Castles

Devin Castles is an intern at the Washington Monthly.