The right way to think about poverty, per the GOP’s own leaders, is to not think about poverty.
In a speech on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan dove into the 2016 presidential race. Not as a candidate, but as an arbiter.
“Looking around at what’s taking place in politics today, it is easy to get disheartened,” he told interns and reporters in the Ways and Means Committee room. “How many of you find yourself just shaking your head at what you see from both sides?”
Without saying his name, Ryan made it resoundingly clear that he was talking about the Republican presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump, as he spoke about the “ugliness” of the 2016 race. (“Personalities come and go, but principles endure,” he said. Yeah, probably not referring to John Kasich.) As The Huffington Post’s Matt Fuller notes, Ryan has blasted Trump without naming Trump on at least two other occasions.
In his speech Wednesday, Ryan echoed another refrain he’s brought up before: poverty. Ryan framed poverty as the kind of granular policy issue that could unify the Republican Party. He even spoke about how he has, in the past, let fiery rhetoric get the best of himself when discussing poverty:
I’m certainly not going to stand here and tell you I have always met this standard. There was a time when I would talk about a difference between “makers” and “takers” in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. “Takers” wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don't want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.
House Speaker Ryan reiterated that that “makers” and “takers” is the wrong way to think about poverty. (“I didn’t come out and say all this to be politically correct. I was just wrong.”) But he failed to address the substantive views of any of the leading Republican candidates on poverty. The right way to think about poverty, per the GOP’s own leaders, is to not think about poverty.
“Trump has taken virtually no direct positions on any of the poverty or opportunity issues we are examining,” writes Ron Haskins, the co-director of the Center on Children and Families and Budgeting for National Priorities at the Brookings Institution. In Haskins’ analysis, Republican Senator Ted Cruz addresses poverty only insofar as the candidate believes that broad tax reforms will stimulate the economy for all.
Today, Ryan also failed to address the substance of his own proposal to alleviate poverty and expand opportunity—ideas that are just as misguided as his past rhetoric on the subject.
As CityLab first addressed in 2014, Ryan’s plan to eliminate poverty centers on consolidating 11 different federal food and housing assistance programs into a single Opportunity Grant program distributed through states. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has shown, this plan would involve turning the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, an entitlement, into a state-administered block-grant program. Whereas entitlements are funded automatically based on need, block grants are fixed for each state for the year.
This exposes food assistance and 10 other safety-net programs to tremendous risk. Consolidating all of them into a single block grant could change the way that states apportion assistance—to the detriment of families who depend on aid. Some states might be tempted to divert food assistance or housing vouchers to Community Development Block Grants (one of the programs in the 11-program roll-up). CDBGs provide subsidies to developers, not direct aid to people in need.
Funneling federal aid through a single hose operated by states will invariably lead to states tightening the spigot. Block grants shrink over time. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (a block grant that Ryan would roll up into an even larger block grant) has declined 31 percent since its launch in 1998. Most low-income block grants have suffered similar declines in funding.
“Total funding to assist low-income families—from federal, state, and local levels combined—likely would decline, because the block grant would afford state and local officials tantalizing opportunities to use some block grant funds to replace state and local funds now going for similar services,” writes Robert Greenstein at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
It’s not enough for Ryan to merely sound presidential when he talks about policy. His proposals will give states greater authority to restrict overall aid funding. The outcome would be ugly; sweeter words won’t change that.