A Poor Man’s Poverty Agenda

Beinart appreciates that the GOP is at least starting to focus on the problem of poverty but he’s still far from impressed:

[T]aken together, the new Republican anti-poverty speeches have a depressingly theological quality. They usually begin with a catechism: Washington can’t effectively fight poverty. “After 50 years, isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?” Rubio declared in a warm-up video for his speech. “What Detroit needs to thrive,” added Paul, “is not Washington’s domineering hand but freedom from big government’s mastery.”

Rarely is serious evidence offered for these assertions, because they are not statements of fact; they are declarations of faith. In truth, there’s ample evidence that some Washington programs significantly reduce poverty. A 2011 National Bureau of Economic Research paper, for instance, found that Social Security “reduces deep poverty” among the elderly and disabled “almost to zero.” In 2011, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps) together lifted almost 10 million Americans above the poverty line. That doesn’t mean Washington doesn’t waste money. But by denouncing federal-government programs per se, folks like Paul declare an entire category of anti-poverty tools illegitimate. It’s like beginning a speech on national defense by affirming your doctrinal opposition to tanks.

Sharon Parrott criticizes Rubio’s block-grant proposal:

[N]o block-grant proposal has ever been designed for these programs that provides a full, prompt, counter-cyclical response; a block grant simply cannot do that.  As a consequence, under the Rubio proposal, hardship would inevitably rise in many areas during recessions — likely by substantial amounts. The Rubio proposal also would wipe away important protections in current law that ensure, for example, that all poor children have access to nutrition assistance and health coverage.  States could shift federal funds from less popular groups to groups with more political clout, such as from very poor families to families with moderate incomes. In addition, block-granting key safety net programs could very well lead to funding cuts over time.  Politically, it’s much easier for policymakers to shrink a block grant that supports a vast array of purposes spread across 50 states — and claim that states can compensate by improving efficiency or rooting out “waste, fraud and abuse” — than to cut specific types of assistance for specific groups of people such as low-income children, seniors, or people with disabilities. The history of recent decades bears this out.  Funding for most major block grants focused on low-income households has eroded in inflation-adjusted terms, often by large amounts.

Jared Bernstein argues that Rubio’s plan would undermine the whole point of the safety net:

“Revenue neutrality” may sound technical and inoffensive, if not fiscally sound, but what it really means is the safety net will be unable to expand in recessions.  Let’s see the details, but typically under these arrangements, states will be unable to tap the Feds for unemployment benefits, nutritional assistance, and all the other functions that must expand to meet need when the market fails.  This would be a huge step backwards, essentially enshrining poverty-inducing austerity in place of literally decades of policy advancements to meet demand contractions with temporary spending expansions.

Pareene thinks the GOP’s poverty agenda is a scam:

Poverty is … a subject about which it’s incredibly easy to bamboozle most of the mainstream political press. You can get swell coverage merely for saying you care about the poor, as Paul Ryan recently has. Because political reporters are unable and unwilling to analyze policy, and curiously reluctant to speak to anyone who can, you can also claim any program at all will lessen poverty or help the unemployed. And for Ryan, “caring about the poor” is a good way to reestablish Seriousness: He becomes one of the Few Serious Republicans with plans to help the poor. Poverty is a better subject for this act than most other liberal issues — like, say, the environment — because Republicans are at least allowed to acknowledge that it is bad that some people are poor.

Finally, Patrick J. Egan explains why formulating a Republican poverty agenda is so difficult:

[T]herein lies the problem for Republican leaders seeking to claim ownership of the poverty issue: their voters aren’t particularly concerned about poverty.  Every January since 1997, the Pew Research Center has asked Americans to rate a series of issues as national priorities for the upcoming year.  …  Year in and year out, Democratic voters don’t just prioritize fighting poverty more than Republicans; it’s generally the issue on which Democratic enthusiasm is most likely to be higher — by 20 to 30 percentage points — than Republican enthusiasm.

This commitment gap between the two parties’ rank-and-file members will be difficult to close.  To begin to do so, GOP leaders like Ryan, Rubio and Paul will need messages that appeal to one of their toughest audiences when it comes to caring about poverty: Republican voters.

Earlier Dish on the GOP’s anti-poverty push here and here.