by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of American Reporter Correspondents
July 31, 2014
PUNISHING THE POOR FOR BEING POOR IS NOT A BOLD NEW IDEA
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It's hard to believe that Paul Ryan, the chairman of the Budget Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, can serve up chicken crap and tell people its a new kind of chicken salad, but the Republican Congressman from Wisconsin keeps getting away with it.
His latest platter of chicken crap was served up at the American Enterprise Institute last week, where he called for a sweeping restructuring of social services.
Ryan's proposed "Opportunity Grants" would consolidate nearly every federal anti-poverty program, including food stamps and housing vouchers, into a single pool of money that would be distributed to states as block grants to spend as they see fit. States participating in this plan would have to partner with "community groups" (including for-profit entities) to distribute this aid.
To receive the aid, low-income applicants would have to meet with a case manager to develop an "opportunity plan" - something that appears to a mix of self-help programs, free advice and goal-setting.
The plan would also include contractually-binding provisions for finding and keeping a job, any job. Failing to meet the benchmarks would result in sanctions, including loss of benefits.
You can probably see where this is going.
A version of Ryan's plan was done back in 1996 by the Clinton administration as part of his declaration to "end welfare as we know it." The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program was transformed into a block grant, and new rules and work requirements made it more difficult to obtain benefits.
As a result, while 68 percent of poor families could get TANF benefits in 1996, only 25 percent can get them today. Also, the amount of funding for the program hasn't changed in nearly 20 years.
The effects of welfare reform were evident during the worst days of the Great Recession, when states could not respond to the tidal wave of poor families that either couldn't qualify for TANF, or had already maxed out on lifetime limits that the new rules placed on the program.
This was a big reason why there was such a spike in spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. It is easier to qualify for SNAP than TANF, and while SNAP benefits are meager, they made a huge difference for many individuals and families on the edge. Without them, for example, the unpaid editor of this publication would go without food part of the month.
If SNAP goes the way of TANF, and goes from being an entitlement that automatically responds to times of increased need with increased spending to becoming a block grant with a fixed amount of money, the flexibility that made SNAP a literal lifesaver for millions of Americans disappears.
That's because, historically, when federal programs are combined into block grants, spending on them decreases over time. It's a good thing if you're a so-called deficit hawk trying to cut the federal budget, but a very bad thing if you are a poor family who is being squeezed to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy or federal spending that is more politically popular.
And giving federal programs to the states to run is not exactly a winning idea. Just look at the all the Republican governors around the country that have cut funding for health care, education, housing, and social welfare programs.
But the most offensive part of Ryan's program is that he is trying to pass off the same old conservative philosophy of punishing poor people for their poverty as some sort of bold new initiative.
Forcing poor Americans to bind themselves to a "contract" regulating how they live their lives - in Ryan's words, "a contract outlining specific and measurable benchmarks for success" with "sanctions for breaking the terms of the contract" - is not a bold new idea. Ryan and the Republicans are doubling-down on the same old paternalistic model for keeping poor people poor and under control by their alleged social and economic betters.
The problem that Ryan and his supporters will not acknowledge is that the reason we have so many people living in poverty is because too many jobs do not pay a living wage. Nor will they acknowledge that this fact accounts for why the gap between rich and poor in the United States is the highest it has been since the 1920s.
Anyone who seriously believes that Paul Ryan wants to do something about poverty in the United States, and thinks his "Opportunity Grants" are a bold and innovative idea, is clearly not paying attention.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.