The House Republican wants to lead on poverty and change, but he can't lead on the changes that Ferguson needs.
The Democratic and Republican parties have something in common when it comes to Ferguson: Neither party's leaders wants to get involved.
President Barack Obama's comments on Monday about the death of Michael Brown and the resulting standoff between police and demonstrators were halting, drawing criticism even from his supporters. Despite cries from some for him to personally intervene in the conflict, President Obama is sending Attorney General Eric Holder today. Likely Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton hasn't said a word about the conflict, and without an obvious challenger for the nomination, likely won't.
No one has called on Rep. Paul Ryan to visit Ferguson, and during a Fox News segment on Brown's death, Ryan declined to offer his opinion on what led Ferguson police officer Darren WIlson to shoot the unarmed 18-year-old. "What I don’t want to do as a political leader is try to graft my policy initiatives or my preferences onto this tragedy, I think that would be disrespectful," he said.
Yet one thing differentiates Ryan from every other presumptive GOP candidate out there: Ryan is fresh off a year-long listening tour of the nation's low-income communities. His visits to poor, urban America have given him firsthand experience with the forces that have helped to shape the conflict in Ferguson—from the migration of poverty to the suburbs to the lack of affordable housing or representative government in African American communities. His pivot on poverty suggests that he might have something to say about Ferguson.
The nine-day book tour that Ryan is launching today, with its nine stops in Florida, is the latest sign that the Wisconsin congressman harbors presidential ambitions. If he is mulling a White House bid, then the lessons he's learned about poverty, about change, about The Way Forward, if you will, are not just relevant in the context of the most pressing domestic issue of the day—they are critical.
Fortunately, Ryan's new policy proposals for expanding opportunity in America already tell us what we need to know about what Ryan would do—or wouldn't do—to address the structural problems that plague cities like Ferguson.
Brookings Institution fellow Elizabeth Kneebone, an expert on the issue of rising suburban poverty, sketched out the problems that Ferguson residents face. Ferguson's unemployment rate rose from 5 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2010–2012. About a quarter of residents live under the federal poverty level ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), Kneebone writes, and almost half live below twice that level.
Worse still, the rates of concentrated poverty, measured at the neighborhood level (specifically the census tract), increased dramatically between 2000 and 2008–2012. "[A]s concentrated poverty climbs in communities like Ferguson, [residents] find themselves especially ill-equipped to deal with impacts such as poorer education and health outcomes, and higher crime rates," Kneebone writes.
Many households in Ferguson depend on Housing Choice Vouchers, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program that helps low-income families as well as the elderly and disabled to afford housing on the private market. Kneebone notes that the number of households in Ferguson that use Housing Choice Vouchers more than doubled from 2000 to the end of the decade (rising from about 300 to more than 800).
These Ferguson households could face hardship under the policies that Ryan has devised to alleviate poverty. Ryan's anti-poverty proposal centers around a plan to consolidate a bunch of existing assistance programs (largely SNAP, TANF, childcare, and housing assistance) into a single, flexible Opportunity Grant program. The problem is that flexible block-grant programs, like the reformed Opportunity Grant that Ryan is proposing, are more vulnerable to spending cuts than entitlement grants.
The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has shown how flexible block-grant programs tend to shrink over time. Sometimes dramatically: Funding for TANF has declined 25 percent since 2001 (and 31 percent since its launch in 1998). Senior policy analyst Douglas Rice explains how this works: While HUD gives Congress precise figures for Housing Choice Vouchers (his example), under a flexible block-grant program, lawmakers can cut funding to block grants and then ask states to make up the difference.
Ethan Handelman of the National Housing Conference writes that the customization central to Ryan's proposal would help with things like preventing households from going into foreclosure. And a shift to state discretion has garnered some successes elsewhere, like with the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program—although Handelman notes that "[s]tate-level experimentation can go wrong, too, which is why the strict outcome measures and accountability are important."
Yet hiring "super-caseworkers," Stephanie Mencimer explains in Mother Jones, would add significant administrative costs to federal assistance. Although Ryan's proposal preserves overall funding levels, it adds new requirements and services that would raise costs. By ending SNAP and other benefits as guaranteed entitlements, Ryan's policy opens the door to states dipping into SNAP benefits or housing assistance to offset the new costs of implementing the Opportunity Grants—which winds up in cuts to either the number of families who receive assistance or the level of assistance that families receive.
The best-case scenario simply doesn't sound like a program that the Republican Party would support. Providing customized assistance to the 40 million Americans who receive food assistance, for example, would require "a fleet of roughly more than 700,000 social workers, assuming a reasonable caseload of about 55 clients per caseworker," Mencimer writes. If Ryan's plan doesn't lead to an increase in the number of government aid workers, then it means adding more paperwork on the desks of existing aid workers—or cutting aid.
The crisis in Ferguson isn't a food crisis or a housing crisis or a poverty crisis, but solving the underlying problems stressing this community will involve addressing those things. Certainly, the crisis stands as an indictment of the status quo. As one of many figures in the hunt for the GOP nomination for 2016—and one who has been positioning himself to lead on poverty by taking on that status quo—Ryan would seem to have a lot to gain by speaking about Ferguson. But what Ferguson stands to gain from what Ryan might say is a different question.