If your overriding policy goal is to shrink federal spending over time, then yes, drastically redesigning an enormous chunk of the safety net in order to (maybe) move a relatively small group of people who seem to be stuck in intractable poverty toward work might make sense. But if your policy goal is, instead, simply to design a safety net that works for most Americans who come into contact with it, and cost isn’t your No. 1 worry, then burning down and replacing the one we have is just rash. …
To completely redesign programs that already work well (such as food stamps), while forcing every single person who needs a hand through a rough patch to submit to a new and intrusive bureaucratic regime, is simply overkill. Doing so might not even move many people out of poverty and could have any number of unintended consequences. (Would anybody be shocked if having to sign a life contract scared off some poor parents from trying to get benefits that they really needed?) Looking for specific places where the safety net is weak, and then fixing it in a targeted way, is the more responsible choice.
Ross, on the other hand, defends the plan from critics who call it paternalistic:
For conservatives who support the “conditional reciprocity” embodied in tying welfare benefits to work or job seeking or life planning or anything else, there are two responses to this critique. The first is that certain prominent middle-class entitlements do, in fact, impose stringent conditions on their beneficiaries. Specifically, what you get from them depends on whether you’ve worked and paid taxes across your adult life: Seniors aren’t required to attend “water aerobics” to get Medicare or Social Security, but by the time they receive benefits from those programs they have usually paid out a lifetime’s worth of payroll and Medicare taxes. …
Meanwhile, there are, yes, lots of other programs and credits and subsidies in our system that aren’t built on conditional reciprocity, except in a sense so loose as to be meaningless. But here’s the thing: Conservatives often and increasingly favor capping, cutting or doing away with those giveaways entirely! Lowrey and Bruenig write as if it’s a hypothetical or a reductio ad absurdum to imagine the government demanding “action plans” from corporate welfare beneficiaries or trying to wean rich households off the mortgage-interest deduction. But the assumption behind every recent draft of tax reform on the right, from Mitt Romney’s 2012 plan to Mike Lee’s family-friendly proposal to Dave Camp’s blueprint (in ascending order of fiscal precision), is that a range of “welfare state for the rich” provisions in the tax code should be straightforwardly eliminated.
Nonetheless, in Frum’s view, Ryan’s plan reflects “a way of thinking about poverty that made excellent sense a decade ago – but that is not equal to the more difficult circumstances of today”:
In the late 1990s, a booming U.S. economy created jobs at a rate not seen since the 1960s. Wages even for less-skilled workers rose handsomely. Pretty much anybody who wanted to work could do so, and full-time work offered a path out of poverty. An enhanced Earned-Income Tax Credit topped up wages; a new federal health benefit for children extended health care to families who earned just slightly too much to qualify for Medicaid.
It made sense in those days to think of poverty not as a social or economic problem but as an expression of some more personal affliction or burden: mental illness, adult illiteracy, addiction, family breakdown. That was very much the assumption behind the “compassionate conservatism” advocated by George W. Bush when he sought the presidency at the end of the 1990s. Poor people needed more than a check! … But does it remain true in the context of 2014 that poverty is grounded in behaviors, as seemed to be the case in 1999-2000? The 45 million Americans who rely on food stamps: Do they really need caseworkers to set goals for them? Or have those goals been moved out of reach by economic circumstances?
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Nolan Brown is disheartened that the plan’s proposals for criminal justice reform are getting so little attention, particularly from liberals who ought to be cheering them:
To me, these are by far the most exciting parts of Ryan’s agenda. When is the last time an American politician brought up criminal justice reform in the context of poverty policy proposals? And yet a huge part of what keeps people poor is our draconian criminal justice system. As of 2008, one in every 100 people in America was in prison. We throw people in jail for the most insane reasons—possessing pot, having sex, street vending without proper paperwork—thereby already putting them (and their families) in economic jeopardy. And then we release them into a system where over-eager cops, parole officers, and bureaucrats are on the ready to issue fines or haul them back into prison should they fail to meet any number of labyrinthian requirements.
The Dish’s complete coverage of Ryan’s plan here.