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March 04, 2014 1:28 PM Ryan’s Cut-and-Paste Job on Poverty Programs

By Ed Kilgore

As you may have heard, Rep. Paul Ryan has released an authoritative-sounding critique of federal means-tested assistance programs for low-income folks prior to releasing his latest (FY 2015) budget proposal. But before the ink has fully dried on his evisceration of the War on Poverty programs, a rapidly increase number of the economists he quoted are crying foul, suggesting that Ryan and his staff misinterpreted or distorted their research. Here’s a excerpt from Rob Garver’s report on the protests from the Fiscal Times:

[S]everal economists and social scientists contacted on Monday had reactions ranging from bemusement to anger at Ryan’s report, claiming that he either misunderstood or misrepresented their research.
Ryan’s paper, for example, cited a study published in December by the Columbia Population Research Center measuring the decline in poverty in the U.S. after the implementation of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”
One of the study’s authors, Jane Waldfogel, a professor at Columbia University and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, said she was surprised when she read the paper, because it seemed to arbitrarily chop off data from two of the most successful years of the war on poverty….

The Ryan report uses the same paper to support its assertion that a welfare reform program instituted in 1996 was the cause of a decline in child poverty.

Chris Wimer, the lead author on the paper and a researcher at Columbia, said Ryan’s conclusion ignores the major expansion of the earned-income tax credit in 1993 and the roaring dotcom economy of the mid-to-late 1990s. “While our data can’t disentangle those three things, attributing the decline in poverty after 1993 to the welfare reform of 1996 seems to go beyond what the data show,” Wimer said.

These are not small, technical quibbles, but major objections to major claims made by Ryan about the alleged failure of programs he has sought to eviscerate for years now, and the success of initiatives he wants to extend to other areas of the social safety net.

There’s an even more fundamental problem with how Ryan’s report defines “poverty,” notes Brian Beutler at Salon:

Every time a Republican wins positive press by posing as a tribune for the poor, an angel gets its wings ripped off by the invisible hand of capitalism, which means today, the day after Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc unveiled a tendentious audit of U.S. anti-poverty programs, is an exceptionally gory day….
[T]he evidence is right there on the first page of his new report. “Despite trillions of dollars in spending, poverty is widespread,” it reads. “In 1965, the poverty rate was 17.3 percent. In 2012, it was 15 percent.” Sounds like a huge bust, right?
Except, there’s a footnote at the end of that sentence, and it reads, “The Official Poverty Rate does not include government transfers to low-income households.”
I’m surprised Ryan included this caveat, even though it’s more honest to include it than to leave it out. Because it also reveals that his critique of federal anti-poverty programs is premised on a metric designed to create a false impression that tons of money has been wasted, when really it’s done exactly what it was supposed to.
The war on poverty has indeed been a bust if you treat the poor people it’s lifted above the federal poverty line as if they remain impoverished. This is like saying “The Earned Income Tax Credit has failed you because, if you don’t count the value of the tax credit, you’re still in poverty,” and applying that same logic to millions of beneficiaries.

It’s looking more and more likely that Ryan’s wonky-looking report will merely serve as the appetizer for another effort to slash funding for low-income programs—the central thrust of his previous budgets—with maybe a “reform” (e.g., relative improvement of EITC benefits for people without dependent children) tossed in for marketing purposes. We’ll know soon enough, but no one should be fooled into thinking that footnotes are necessarily a better justification for Ryan’s policies than his past assertions that poor people need to be liberated from government assistance.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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