Jordan Weissmann argues that Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan is a solution in search of a problem, and that the safety net as it is has been successful at keeping most Americans out of long-term poverty:
In 2011, according to the Survey of Income and Program Participation, the annual U.S. poverty rate was 14 percent. But only 3.5 percent of Americans were chronically poor, meaning they had been impoverished for three straight years. … One take-away from these numbers is that, yes, chronic poverty is real, and we need to work toward fixing it. But another is that, by and large, most people don’t need a life contract to escape poverty; the existing safety net catches them and helps them back onto their feet.
To his credit, Ryan makes some of these distinctions. The animating idea of his plan is that our approach to poverty should be customized person by person. His plan even distinguishes between the sort of approach the government could take to help a woman facing “situational poverty” versus someone stuck in “generational poverty.” He clearly sees the poor as individuals, which is far better than many politicians. But in order to make custom poverty prevention a reality, he wants to tear down a system that already works fairly well for the majority and has without question diminished material deprivation in this country.
At some point in their lives, millions of Americans will experience a short spell of poverty. Not because they don’t have a plan to fix their lives or lack the skills to move forward, but because our economy isn’t run to create demand for labor, isn’t equipped to deliver stable work to everyone who wants it, and wasn’t built to address the distributive needs of everyone who works. The best way to confront this problem for most people is to just address those needs.
Yes, on the margins, there will be Americans who need an intensive approach, and I endorse government support for voluntary life coaching. (For example, look at the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore.) But by and large, the easiest solution is to mail larger checks to more people. In other words, we need more solutions like Ryan’s expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit—the best part of his plan—and fewer life coaches for the poor.
Reihan goes another round, now arguing that caseworkers would make up for the failures of poor communities to provide “mutual self-help” to their members:
Mutual self-help still exists, yet its institutional manifestations seem to have decayed as U.S. culture has grown more individualistic and as the state has grown more inclusive. Civil society cannot, in my view, replace a robust safety net. There are some things, however, that mutual self-help networks can do better than the state, e.g., impart implicit learning or facilitate the transmission of beneficial social practices that must first be validated by in-group members, etc. And so the fact that mutual self-help networks, including invisible mutual self-help networks, are stronger among the nonpoor than the poor is a serious problem, albeit one that is hard to capture through anything other than ethnography.
What does any of this have to do with casework? Essentially, I see casework as a substitute, albeit a decidedly inadequate one, for mutual self-help networks. In an ideal world, casework might even contribute to their revival. For now, at least, casework strikes me as the best tool we have to see to it that the right help goes to the right people at the right time.
Earlier Dish on Ryan’s plan here.