Ryan Checks in with Social-Justice Advocates for 'War on Poverty' Update

WASHINGTON – Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) continues his mission to bring attention to government policies he says have “failed miserably” to get Americans out of poverty, while critics of his budget maintain it is “morally wrong” to cut social assistance programs.

Ryan convened a panel of social-justice advocates and policy experts Wednesday to give lawmakers a progress report on the government’s battle against poverty.

Forty-nine years ago, former president Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty” to address the problem of persistent poverty in the nation. Since then, the government has spent over $15 trillion in that war. Yet, around 46 million Americans live below the poverty line – the highest number since the fight against poverty began.

Ryan said the government has been doing a “lousy job” because it “focuses too much on inputs.”  He argued that government must tackle the causes of poverty, instead of perpetuating it by funding its symptoms.

“We focus on how much money we spend. Instead, we should focus on results. We should focus on how many people get off public assistance—because they have a good job,” he said.

Ryan compared government programs to a “giant sedimentary rock” with layers of programs built onto each other.

“In fact, there are so many of them—and there is so little coordination between them—that they work against each other. In effect, we penalize people for finding a job or getting a raise,” he added.

Whenever lawmakers argue over ways to reduce the budget deficit, one of the most popular ideas on both sides of the aisle is “means-testing” programs like Medicare and Social Security. Instead of wholesale benefit cuts, the idea is to reduce them for the rich and middle classes while leaving them intact for the poor.

Currently, there are 60 means-tested programs funded and directed by the federal government. In addition, state and local governments operate numerous similar programs. The Congressional Research Service has estimated that state and local governments supplemented federal spending on these means-testing programs by around 27 percent in 2004. Together, federal and state governments spend close to a trillion dollars a year on means-tested benefit programs, according to data from the Heritage Foundation.

Douglas Besharov, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, noted that government programs generate both good and bad incentives. He highlighted the importance of adopting the right incentives that encourage people to work without necessarily reducing the benefits under means-tested programs.

He said that the increase in social assistance expenditures does not belong to either political party, adding that “this is a story of 15 years of expansion of means-tested programs without thinking about their incentive effects.”

Sister Simone Campbell, head of the Catholic lobbying group NETWORK and a leader of the recent “Nuns on the Bus” campaign, testified about meeting several Americans across the nation who had benefited from social assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP). She noted that the 2014 budget resolution proposed by Ryan and passed by the House in March would cut SNAP benefits. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that cuts could total $135 billion, close to 18 percent, over the next 10 years.