Paul Ryan’s Finishing School for the Poor

Paul Ryan. I keep trying to figure out why people take this guy seriously. Just a couple of months ago he was talking about fighting poverty through what appears to be a combination of Beatles lyrics and the theme from My Little Pony. Other than that, he’s just your typical conservative politician. Haven’t we seen this movie before? Tax cuts for the wealthy, check. Shredding the social safety net, double-check. And of course the philosophical love affair with Ayn Rand. In Ryan’s case, he is supposed to be the serious policy wonk when it comes to budgetary matters. But his numbers never add up. All of his budgets are based on fantastical projections like even more tax cuts resulting in enough economic growth to push the unemployment rate to 2.8%.  That would be a rate we haven’t seen since the Korean war, which, by the way, had way higher tax rates. But I digress. But I’ve finally figured out what his deal is. Or at least what our collective deal with him is.

The media is so in love with this narrative of balance that they are willing to put this guy on a pedestal because he says he really cares about the plight of the poor. And the thing is, there are a couple of decent ideas in the proposal but they’re resting on a very shaky foundation. Conservatives are so uniformly and historically bad on issues of poverty that just saying you don’t want to feed the poor to lions makes you an anti-poverty crusader in some circles. Of course, all one has to do is look at Paul Ryan’s recent budgets to understand what he really wants to do about poverty. Like the last one where he proposed to cut Medicaid by 26%, reduced SNAP benefits by 137 billion and turn Medicare into a voucher program. He cares so much about the poor that he’s gutting all of the programs that they depend on. What a guy. But remember, this is a guy who toured the country for more than a year focusing on the plight of the poor. And what did he glean from his year-long sojourn? According to him, if you’re a person in poverty you don’t need health care and food. All you need is love, right Congressman? So it’s no surprise his latest anti-poverty efforts are about as ridiculous as anything else he’s put forward.

There is plenty of stupid to go around in this “plan.” I use the quotation marks because there isn’t a lot in the way of real numbers attached to the plan. Plus its a direct contradiction to his previous budgets, on a rhetorical level at the very least. But the Congressman’s budgets never really added up anyway so why start there. The lynchpin of his new plan are these so-called opportunity grants. Basically, you and some sort of life coach make a contract on how you’re going to get yourself out of poverty. And if you don’t get out of poverty fast enough, you’ll be punished. It’s not at all clear how severe the sanctions are supposed to be or how long you’ll have to complete these tasks. Presumably you’ll be kicked off of some or all of the public assistance programs that you depend on to keep yourself and your family out of even more desperate straits.

Now if you’re thinking that if the only thing separating poor people from not being poor people is a plan, kindly smash your head into your computer screen. I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing how asinine, paternalistic, and useless this part of the Ryan’s idea is. There’s already been plenty of that already here and here. I will say that micromanaging the lives of poor people would probably require an entirely new bureaucracy complete with an army social workers to help figure out why those people are so poor in the first place. Also there’s no way to pay for it. There’s that conservative stance on small government again. Apparently, government needs to be as small an efficient as possible and never interfere with anyone’s freedom. Unless of course you’re referring to women’s health care decisions, the military budget care or how fast poor people can will themselves out of poverty. But I digress yet again.

Here’s the problem with this plan. Much like his economic plans, they’re based on faulty logic. For example, one of the few reasonable things in Congressman Ryan’s poverty plan is an extension of the earned income tax credit. Of course that proposal is made because he thinks poor people aren’t working because their taxes are too high. And extending the EITC would enable more poor folks to enter the workforce according to Congressman Ryan. In what universe are large groups of poverty-stricken people going Man, I would totally take that slightly above minimum wage job if only they’d drop my tax rate a few percentage points. Oh well, guess I’ve given up. This entire line of thinking about economics is bereft of not only all rational sense but also historical perspective. I can’t be sure because there is no way to check this but I believe people have worked throughout the history of America — even when tax rates were higher. Even when rates were significantly higher. Of course it’s not about facts or objective measures. It never has. If it were, they would have abandoned their voodoo economic theories generations ago. It’s all about ideology.

At its heart, Paul Ryan’s plan (all conservative plans really) relies on an ideology that assumes that there is something inherently wrong with poor people. There’s a base level of contempt at work here. Why else would they need life coaches? Remember the Congressman’s earlier foray into a poverty plan was to talk about poor people needing to embrace the attributes of friendship, accountability and love.” Wow, I didn’t know that my family growing up was supposed to be bereft of those attributes. Or that we could have used use those things to buy groceries. Jeb Bush wants to fight poverty with traditional marriage. That’s right poor people, straight marriage is the key! Newt Gingrich thinks that poor kids don’t have any work ethic at all unless that work is illegal.  So says the leading figures in the national Republican party. But it doesn’t stop there. On the local level numerous Republican legislatures and governors think its necessary to drug test poor people before they can receive their food stamps. It doesn’t matter if you’re stigmatizing poor people, or if it’s a colossal waste of money. They know how those people use their benefits, objective evidence be damned. It’s impossible to fight poverty effectively if you think that the real reason that people are in poverty is because they are lacking in moral character.

When you cast them in that light, suddenly Ryan’s ideas — his budgets, his anti-poverty plan, everything but his math — suddenly make a surprising amount of sense. According to that logic, poor people don’t need Medicaid, they don’t need SNAP, they don’t need childcare or housing support programs — they just need somebody from the benevolent bourgeoisie to sit them down and really talk with them about what it means to be a respectable and productive member of society. Think of it as a finishing school for the middle class where adults can take remedial classes in manners and character development — Cotillion is extra credit — which is supposed to solve the problem of  poverty in America once and for all. Because in this worldview, poverty doesn’t come from generations of structural oppression of minority groups, a limping public education sector, a tax system designed and refined to cater to the wealthy, a towering and profoundly broken criminal justice system incarcerating multiple generations of healthy adults, or any complex set of interlocking social and structural issues that call our nation’s moral priorities as a whole into question. According to Paul Ryan, the only people who need to take on the hard work of personal change in order to solve poverty in America are truly the poor themselves.


Categories: Politics Fix

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