For the sake of America’s poor, a sincere conservative effort to improve the programs that serve them is very desirable – especially so long as Republicans control the House of Representatives, where they habitually yearn to cut or defund those same programs. For months Washington has eagerly awaited the latest version of “compassionate conservatism,” promised by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his publicists.
But what the House budget chair and 2012 vice-presidential candidate delivered on Monday must drastically lower any such expectations.
“The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later” produced by Ryan’s House Budget Committee staff is merely more of the same old right-wing propaganda against the safety net, and worse.
Promoted as a scathingly rigorous analysis of the impact of poverty programs since the Sixties, its 200-plus pages cite dozens of academic researchers. Yet it more resembles an ideological tract than the social science meta-study it purports to be. Having determined in advance that nearly all of the nation’s anti-poverty spending is wasteful, counterproductive, and damaging to the work ethic of poor people, Ryan and his staff perform an audacious statistical stunt: They prove those programs have failed by pretending those programs don’t exist.
Poverty in America is officially determined by household income, and any official measurement of the number or percentage of poor Americans – those living “below the poverty line” — is determined by their income alone. But in order to measure the effectiveness of government programs designed to reduce the impact of low incomes, it would seem logically necessary to add in those extra sources of cash, goods, and services. A family that receives food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit may be raised out of poverty, even if their income remained below the official poverty line.
But the Ryan report rejects such plain logic, relying instead on the official poverty numbers without assessing the impact of those programs – and then insists that because the number of families with low incomes remains around 15 percent, those programs have failed.
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains in a pithy review:
The report features the “official” poverty measure even though analysts across the political spectrum — and all three witnesses at a recent hearing that Ryan held, including the two Republicans he invited — have warned that the official poverty measure is deeply flawed for tracking changes in poverty over recent decades and for evaluating the impact of the safety net today. The official measure ignores a very large share of the safety net — including SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), tax-based benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, and low-income housing assistance, among other programs. Using a more comprehensive measure of poverty that analysts broadly favor, known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), Columbia University researchers recently found that poverty had fallen markedly, from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012. Ryan buries this fact, failing to note the deep reductions in poverty under the SPM since the 1960s until page 201 of his report.
Moreover, the SPM shows that in 2012, the safety net cut poverty nearly in half — shrinking the poverty rate from 29 to 16 percent. Yet in its 200-plus pages, the Ryan report fails to mention these findings.
In other words, Ryan cooks the books (again!), this time to denigrate programs that the Republicans want to cut drastically, notably SNAP and Medicaid.