The New (And Improved?) Paul Ryan, Ctd

Jordan Weissmann responds to McArdle’s criticisms of his criticisms of Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan:

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.

The New (And Improved?) Paul Ryan, Ctd

Noah Smith hails the congressman’s anti-poverty plan as “a sea change in the way Republicans see the role of government”:

In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan famously declared: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Over the next 2 1/2 decades, Republicans and conservatives tended to drop the “in the present crisis” part. They’ve treated government as an obstacle to human welfare always and everywhere, instead of a tool that can sometimes be used to improve things. Ryan’s plan is the first glimmer of a big awakening on the right — the realization that the crisis we now face isn’t the same as the one we faced in 1981. Perhaps a decade-and-a-half of falling real incomes and falling mobility has finally cracked the hard shell of triumphal post-Reaganism. If so, the fear that the conservative movement would degenerate forever into obstructionist self-parody — that the Tea Party is the future — has proven unfounded.

Think about it: In 2014, the Republican Party’s main idea man — who just two years ago ran for vice president on the same ticket as a man who called the poorer half of America “takers” — is now proposing to use a government bureaucracy to send social workers to help poor people make more money, while simultaneously mailing them government checks. That is a big, big deal. Compared with that epochal shift, the particulars of Ryan’s plan hardly matter.

Michael Brendan Dougherty agrees:

Ryan’s plan — along with Dave Camp’s tax plan and proposals by Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee on a range of issues — reveals that at least some in the GOP are moving beyond the party’s “You didn’t build that,” anti-47 percent posturing. These proposals constitute green shoots in what had been a policy-thinking desert for the Obama-era right. If I had my druthers, some enterprising senator would pick up a few of Jon Huntsman’s proposed financial reforms.

Democrats may accuse all these proposals of being a mere performance put on for the benefit of grandee policy commentators. But what exactly is the policy agenda Hillary Clinton wants to enact? So far, all we have are gloomy reports about her difficulty balancing how she talks about the go-go 1990s. The GOP has a long way to go, but the latest Ryan proposal is a sign that at least it’s moving.

Jonathan Bernstein hopes Congress might at least start having a substantive conversation about some of these issues:

Policy experts analyzing Ryan’s anti-poverty agenda seem to think that there’s a viable policy here. Given that Ryan remains in some ways the heart of the House Republican conference, it’s good news if Ryan’s contradictions include at least one policy containing genuine substance. Of course, liberals aren’t going to endorse much of that substance. But a debate (or, even better, a legislative clash) between substantive liberal and substantive conservative policy proposals has the potential to produce something worthwhile. In any case, it would be a vast improvement over the symbolic posturing that consumes most of Congress’ time.

Could it all be, as Krugman says, a con? Sure. Ryan doesn’t enter this discussion with much credibility. Republican efforts to pass appropriations based on his budget proved to be a fiasco. But perhaps he’s earned some credibility with his new proposal. Meanwhile, those of us concerned with the effects of a broken Republican Party (as opposed to those who simply want to enact liberal policy) should encourage any positive signs we see.

But Chait remains skeptical:

The idea of letting states decide how to spend federal anti-poverty money has long divided the parties. Republicans assume that states will act in the best interest of their poorest citizens. Democrats assume the opposite. The trouble for Ryan is that, over the last few years, the United States has conducted a vast experiment that has proven his assumption wrong in the most horrifying way possible. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts allowed states to opt out of accepting Medicaid money to give health insurance to their poorest citizens. The money is, essentially, free. Washington would pay 90 percent of the cost of enrolling a person in Medicaid, and the remaining 10 percent would be made up, or more than made up, by the reduced cost of sick uninsured people showing up at the emergency room. In a display of almost fanatical indifference to the well-being of their most vulnerable citizens, nearly every Republican-controlled state government has eschewed this free money. Not only have state-level Republicans failed to display deep concern for the poor, they seem to actually enjoy subjecting them to intense physical and financial distress.

Meanwhile, McArdle pushes back on Jamelle Bouie and Jordan Weissmann’s claim that it’s a mistake to focus, as Ryan does, on long-term poverty when most Americans who fall into the safety net only do so temporarily:

[C]hronically poor people are more likely to require extra government benefits because they don’t have any of the assets that the temporarily poor bring with them from the middle class: reliable cars, houses, savings accounts, credit cards, friends and family who have spare cash to help out. The chronically poor will need more help, for longer, than folks who are struggling through a temporary job loss or divorce. Which means that, at the very least, they take up a disproportionate share of resources. It seems entirely possible — perhaps even likely — that the chronically poor still account for the majority of spending in many programs.

So, mathematically, I think the argument being made by Bouie and Weissman fails; it obviously makes a lot of sense to focus on the group that generates a disproportionate share of our entitlement spending. At the very least, we should consider the strong possibility that those struggling with chronic poverty might need very different kinds of help than those dealing with a temporary income problem — rather than suggesting, as Bouie does, that we should obviously focus on doing whatever is best for people having an acute poverty episode because they’re the majority.

Previous Dish on Paul Ryan’s plan here.

Does The Safety Net Need Fixing?

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.

Bouie turns to similar statistics to fire back at Reihan’s defense of the Ryan plan’s inherent paternalism:

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.

More Block Than Grant?

Josh Voorhees spells out his main concern with the Ryan plan, i.e., that the block grant mechanism he proposes for assistance programs like SNAP will result in benefit cuts:

Under the current setup, any American who qualifies for SNAP benefits receives them, regardless of how much money Washington has already spent on the program that year. But switching to a block grant would effectively set a cap on SNAP spending by stopping the program from automatically increasing along with need. That, critics warn, could leave the program unprepared and underfunded when the next economic downturn sends more Americans than expected scrambling to put food on the table.

The best case for those who want to protect SNAP and other social welfare funding would be for Congress to freeze current funding levels for the foreseeable future. That technically wouldn’t be a reduction in funding, but inflation would tell a different story. That’s what happened to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program during Washington’s last attempt at major welfare reform. Since that program was block-granted in 1996, funding has remained pretty much flat at $16.6 billion per year while the program has quietly lost nearly one-third of its spending power to inflation. Under Ryan’s proposal, food stamps would risk a similar fate.

To illustrate this point, Andrew Flowers imagines that the Ryan plan had been in place during the recession that began in 2007 and calculates how big a hit the program would have taken:

At the end of 2007, the number of SNAP recipients totaled more than 26 million, with cumulative expenditures at more than $33 billion. By 2013, expenditures had more than doubled to nearly $80 billion, with recipients surging to about 47 million. If funding had remained constant, the average monthly benefit would have fallen from $133 (its actual number in 2013) to about $53.

The impact of these safety-net programs is dependent not just on how the funding is delivered — whether as separate programs or one catch-all Opportunity Grant — but also on how the programs respond to economic conditions. It’s the difference between leaning back too far in a rocking chair and on a bar stool.

Mike Konczal also looks to the 90s for historical clues as to how a block grant system would fare:

Rather than a “welfare reform — yay or nay?” conversation, it would be really useful if people arguing for the block-granting of the entire anti-poverty agenda would point out what they do and do not like about what happened in the 1990s. Especially as proponents hold up welfare reform as the model.

As Matt Bruenig notes, the work requirements and other restrictions go against the concept of subsidiarity. Greenstein writes, “the block grant would afford state and local officials tantalizing opportunities to use some block grant funds to replace state and local funds now going for similar services…That’s what happened under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant.” In retrospect, TANF didn’t survive the business cycle, and it clearly has cut spending by cutting the rolls. Is that what people want to accomplish with food stamps, which have done wonders to boost childhood life outcomes? If not, what can be done other than assert that this time will be different?

Meanwhile, Max Ehrenfreund argues that a universal basic income is a more conservative solution to poverty than what Ryan proposes:

Another reason to see why a universal basic income is more conservative than Ryan’s block grant proposal is to compare it to other aspects of his plan. The tax code offers a yearly bonus to poor people who work, called the earned-income tax credit. It is another one of Friedman’s good ideas, and liberals should support it as well because it helps the poor get by, as Matt O’Brien argues. Ryan, like President Obama, wants to expand the earned-income tax credit for adults without children.

Yet if the goal is really to reward the poor and out of work for finding jobs, then this tax credit isn’t a perfect solution. The bonus is not available for those who earn a little more money, so the working poor have less of a financial reason to aim for a raise. They’ll pay a larger share of their income in taxes when they do. A universal basic income would solve this problem. Your payment from the government doesn’t get smaller if you start making more money.

What Can Liberals Do With The Ryan Plan?

Ramesh argues that liberals can and should play ball with Paul Ryan and embrace some of the ideas in his anti-poverty plan:

For a politician, Ryan has shown a lot of willingness to revise his proposals in light of reasonable criticism. His ideas for reforming Medicare, for example, have been refined over time. In this plan, too, Ryan has addressed some of the strongest objections to previous versions of conservative ideas. When federal payouts to states have been suggested before, critics have noted that they might leave states and poor people in a bind during recessions. So Ryan’s plan includes proposals — such as tying the amount of aid distributed to the unemployment level in a given state — intended to make the grants counter-cyclical. … The bigger question to my mind, though, isn’t what Ryan will do next. It’s whether liberals will give his good ideas a fair hearing.

Ryan and Obama are actually on the same page on several issues, including college expenses. Both men, Libby Nelson observes, want colleges to be held accountable for providing an education that’s worth the money:

Where Ryan and Obama differ is on how specific they’re willing to be about what “skin in the game” might look like or what outcomes they want to measure. Ryan’s higher education plan includes concrete proposals for Pell Grants and for capping loans for parents and graduate students. He also suggests specific ways that the federal government could ensure quality in two-year degrees and online programs. Ryan is much more vague when it comes to bigger philosophical shifts that would affect all of higher education.

That might be because he runs into ideological difficulties. Ryan’s explanations of the problems with higher education draw heavily on research and policy analysis from the New America Foundation. The think tank, which has influenced Obama’s higher education policy as well, proposed solutions in its reports too. But those solutions often call for a more muscular government role.

They also see eye-to-eye on the Earned Income Tax Credit, Dylan Matthews adds, but again, the devil is in the details:

[B]oth parties have accepted a norm in recent years where all budgetary proposals must be at least deficit-neutral, so both Obama and Ryan include measures to pay for the idea.

And neither set of pay-fors is remotely acceptable to the other side. Obama would pay for the expansion by raising taxes on hedge fund managers and rich self-employed people, while Ryan would cut other safety net programs and “corporate welfare,” which is this case means specifically energy subsidies the Obama administration likes. Ryan has explicitly rejected Obama’s funding mechanism, and it’s hard to imagine Obama accepting Ryan’s.

Earlier Dish on Ryan’s plan here. A reader sounds off:

You quoted Callie Gable:

A key element of the contracts would be encouraging work, which, currently, only cash welfare requires. Food stamps, federal housing aid, utilities assistance, and more don’t have work requirements — this would essentially mandate that states opting for the Opportunity Grant implement work requirements.

This gets the food stamp program, now called SNAP, wrong. SNAP requires that able-bodied adults without dependents (“ABAWDs” in federal bureaucratese) work or attend job training. Otherwise, they are cut off from SNAP benefits after three months. SNAP also includes a work incentive in the form of an earned-income deduction: for every dollar a SNAP household earns, its benefits decline by only 30 cents. There is reason to believe that these incentives are effective: according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in more than half of SNAP households containing at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, recipients are employed.

The fundamental reason why more SNAP recipients aren’t employed is that many are not able to work. Almost half of all SNAP beneficiaries are children, and many more are elderly or disabled. Others live in areas where the state government – not individual applicants – have received permission to waive work requirements because unemployment is so high that people can’t get jobs.

Paul Ryan has some ideas that are great, including streamlining services and providing more assistance in the form of cash. Some of his other ideas, including turning programs into block grants, are terrible for reasons that others have explained. But it drives me crazy to see people talking about SNAP as though it doesn’t include work requirements or support people who work.

Really? No Benefit Cuts?

Suzy Khimm questions how Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan will pay for itself without them:

While Ryan says his plan is budget neutral, it does not appear to account for the additional cost of hiring case managers, imposing new work requirements, and creating a new bureaucracy to administer them. That could mean less money for benefits and more for services to administer them, said Donna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). “There are things about it that sound good, but when you get to the reality of it, it just falls apart,” she said, adding that federal agencies have often struggled to allocate limited resources to staffing and find enough skilled case workers.

“This individualized case management, the work requirements – all of that is really resource intensive. How you’d do that without pulling from resources that help people meet their basic needs?” said Pavetti, CBPP’s vice-president for family income support policy. She points to a state-level program called Building Nebraska Families, which proved effective at moving more welfare recipients to work through intensive home visits, but which was also costly, averaging $7,400 to $8,300 per participant.

In a more comprehensive critique of the plan, Pavetti faults Ryan for ignoring the tradeoffs and limitations it implies:

The case of “Steven,” whom Ryan also highlights, makes the point as well.  A single 19-year-old non-custodial father, Steven is jobless and needs help to get off drugs.

Ryan’s proposal indicates that the Opportunity Grant would help him get drug treatment, move him into transitional housing (a form of subsidized housing), and get him help with attending parenting classes, finding work, and pursuing further education. These are all needed services, and limited funding keeps many people, particularly adults not living with children and who have the same needs as Steven, from obtaining that help.  But the Opportunity Grant structure would not provide additional resources (and as my colleague Robert Greenstein points out, could well provide fewer resources), so the only way to provide this richer set of supports for Steven is to cut the help that other families receive.

Running down how Paul Ryan proposes to keep the plan revenue neutral, Chuck Marr criticizes the cuts he would make to existing programs:

First, he would pay for it in part by eliminating the refundable part of the Child Tax Credit for several million children in low-income immigrant working families, including citizen children and “Dreamers,” thereby pushing many of them into — or deeper into — poverty. He would also eliminate the Social Services Block Grant, a flexible funding source that helps states meet the specialized needs of their most vulnerable populations, primarily low- and moderate-income children and people who are elderly or disabled.  (This program provides the kind of services and state flexibility that Ryan says we need more of when he promotes other parts of his plan that would enable states to cut food stamps and rental assistance and shift the resources to services.)

Also among the programs that Ryan would end is one that provides fresh fruits and vegetables primarily to children in schools in low-income areas.  By contrast, the President would pay for his EITC expansion by closing tax loopholes for wealthy taxpayers.

In Jared Bernstein’s take, the plan is a potentially costly solution in search of a problem:

The broader reason his plan is misguided is because Ryan starts from the mistaken assumption that the current U.S. anti-poverty system is broken, when in fact it’s actually quite effective, and not just in lowering market-based poverty rates, which it does by almost half, but also by investing in the longer term well-being of its beneficiaries. (Bob Greenstein provides the details here.)  That’s not good enough by a long shot, but neither is it motivation to radically change the system in ways that introduce a dangerous set of new risks, as this new plan does, I fear. …

The implication here is that while a faceless bureaucrat in D.C. can’t possibly evaluate your nutritional needs, for example, a bureaucrat in Albany or Sacramento can easily and efficiently do so. And while the plan requires state officials to use the resources for poverty reduction, and not, say, tax reduction, consolidation also raises serious risks of diverting funds to areas of anti-poverty interventions that state officials favor vs. areas of need.

The New (And Improved?) Paul Ryan

In his first take on Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan, Douthat welcomes the  Wisconsin congressman into the fold of the reform conservatives:

Taken as a whole, this document basically eliminates the daylight that existed between “Ryanism” and reform conservatism on safety net reform. As I discussed two weeks ago, the reformocon quasi-movement has tended to view some of the projected discretionary cuts in the Ryan budgets as implausible and/or unnecessary, and generally prefers a revenue-neutral overhaul of the safety net that spends more on some programs (an E.I.T.C. expansion or wage subsidy, most notably) while cutting others and devolving others to the states. That’s basically what Ryan is proposing here, in a more detailed form than we’ve seen from any other figure of his stature to date, which means that there is now pretty clear unity (on this set of issues) between the House Budget chairman and the wonks who have praised him on entitlement reform, health care reform and other issues in the past.

Yuval Levin also situates the plan within the reformocon agenda and argues that it speaks to the health of the GOP. “Indeed,” he remarks, “it is becoming harder all the time to sustain the proposition that congressional Republicans aren’t engaged in the country’s major policy debates”:

In just the past year, we have seen proposed two major tax reforms, several pro-market Obamacare alternatives, several major safety-net-reform proposals, a higher-ed-reform proposal, several fundamental federal transportation-funding reforms, and several sentencing-reform proposals, among others. Some Republicans have also begun at last to take on corporate welfare, to rethink financial regulation, and to propose piecemeal immigration reforms that would address key problems discretely rather than in an all-or-nothing package that looks worse than nothing. Some of these proposals have been offered as bills, some have been more like policy papers, and of course none has gotten anywhere near the president’s desk. But has there been another twelve-month period when the minority party in Washington has put forward so many elements of a comprehensive domestic agenda?

The Bloomberg View editors give Ryan a pat on the back for rethinking his views on poverty and the safety net:

With this proposal, Ryan has returned to the fold of the late Representative Jack Kemp of New York, his mentor, who wanted to cut spending but also reduce poverty. Like Kemp, Ryan wants the government to help the poor yet still hold them accountable. There is and always will be a tension inherent in government programs for the poor — between providing assistance and discouraging dependence. For too long, the Republican Party has paid too much attention to the latter at the expense of the former. One promise of Ryan’s plan is that it may shift his party’s focus.

Vinik is a bit suspicious of this sudden transformation, asking: “Who is the real Paul Ryan?”:

Is he a deficit hawk who panders to the far right? Or is he a pragmatic policymaker that wants to increase antipoverty spending? Ryan’s supporters say that he’s the latter and that his budget wasn’t his exact position, but represented the opinion of the entire House Republican caucus. … In effect, then, Ryan is saying, “Ignore my past four budgets and the radical spending cuts in them. That was a show for the far right. I actually want to increase spending on anti-poverty programs.” Of course, Ryan won’t actually admit that, because it would infuriate the far right. But make no mistake, that’s what Ryan was implicitly saying Thursday.

But Ezra Klein urges Democrats to play ball with the rebooted Ryan:

Ryan has a quality most reformers don’t: he is exceptionally good at building consensus within the Republican Party. And that’s what makes his poverty plan so important: Ryan is ratifying a shift in the GOP’s focus away from the kind of policies contained in his budgets and towards the kind of policies contained in his poverty plan (and that have also been offered by Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Mike Lee, and others). This is a conversation that should, in theory, offer much more opportunity for common ground with Democrats.

This plan, for instance, marks an important point of agreement between Ryan and the Obama administration: their proposals for expanding the EITC are almost identical — where, previously, the Obama administration wanted to expand the EITC and Ryan wanted to cut it. Their disagreement now is about how to pay for expanding the EITC. That’s a gap that should, under normal political circumstances, be bridgeable.

“It’s important to know,” Neil Irwin stresses, “that none of this is remotely a repudiation of conservative ideals”:

The E.I.T.C. is a version of a “negative income tax,” first imagined by the libertarian economist Milton Friedman as a way of helping the working poor with fewer downsides than conventional welfare programs, like large administrative expense and the creation of incentives for people not to work. Mr. Ryan even proposes paying for the increase in the tax credit by eliminating programs he calls ineffective, including the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. But a funny thing has happened over the past generation. What was once a conservative idea, created in the Gerald Ford administration and expanded by President Reagan and both Presidents Bush, is now more controversial on the right.

(Correction: this post originally referred to Ryan as a Senator. Not yet.)

Paul Ryan Wants To Expand Your Opportunity

GOP caucus

Well, at least if you receive public assistance he does. Callie Gable outlines the main features of the anti-poverty plan Paul Ryan released yesterday, the centerpiece of which is the “Opportunity Grant”:

The Opportunity Grant would consolidate several existing aid programs into one funding stream to states, which states would then be required to offer to recipients of means-tested welfare benefits as part of a consolidated recovery and mobility plan. Disadvantaged Americans would each be [paired] with an individual case worker, with whom they would agree on personalized short and long-term goals (e.g., apply for child support or begin drug counseling) set out in “contracts.” Most important, Ryan is building on the success of the 1990s welfare-reform laws here: A key element of the contracts would be encouraging work, which, currently, only cash welfare requires. Food stamps, federal housing aid, utilities assistance, and more don’t have work requirements — this would essentially mandate that states opting for the Opportunity Grant implement work requirements.

Tyler Cowen is skeptical:

I’m not crazy about the complicated plan to monitor the lives of the poor in more detail (“…work with families to design a customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty.”)  And my biggest conceptual objection is the heavy stress on block grants and letting the states figure things out. I’m not opposed to that in principle, and I might even favor it, but I think it’s often the lazy man’s way of avoiding talk about difficult trade-offs.

I’d like to see a possible plan for just a single state, or better yet two or three, that is supposed to represent an improvement.  That shouldn’t be too hard to do, or if it is maybe the states can’t do it either. It’s not as if fifty states are giving us a market-based discovery process, as the rhetoric sometimes implies.  Furthermore we have a bunch of large states with ongoing bad governance, such as CA, NY, and IL, and maybe the federal government really can do better for those places.

Other critics are less charitable. “Oh goodness,” Annie Lowrey exclaims, “let’s run through the ways that this is condescending and wrongheaded”:

First, it presupposes that the poor somehow want to be poor; that they don’t have the skills to plan and achieve and grow their way out of poverty. The truth is that many do have the skills, and what they lack are resources — say, enough money to pay for a decent daycare for your infant so you can work a full-time job, or cash to get your car fixed so you don’t have to take the bus to your overnight gig at Walmart. Ryan is not putting more resources on the table, as far as I can tell, and thus for many families he will not be addressing the root problem.

Second, it isolates the poor. Middle-class families don’t need to justify and prostrate themselves for tax credits. Businesses aren’t required to submit an “action plan” to let the government know when they’ll stop sucking the oxygen provided by federal grant programs. The old don’t need to show receipts demonstrating their attendance at water aerobics in order to get Medicare. Nope, it’s just the poor who need to answer for their poverty. That strikes me as flatly wrong.

To be fair, she adds, there’s “a lot for liberals to like in here, and there is a significant amount of evidentiary backing for some of his policy proposals”:

Ryan proposes a number of common-sense reforms with broad bipartisan appeal: reducing licensing requirements, getting rid of kinks in anti-poverty programs and the tax code that create a disincentive for families to earn more; prison and sentencing reform, as well as recidivism reduction; supporting evidence-based policies; moving to a system that addresses poverty individually and comprehensively. I especially like the idea of providing more aid to the poor in the form of cash. (Money is more valuable when it’s fungible, and the poor can decide how best to use it.)

Emily Badger expands on Lowrey’s criticism:

An incentive system like this assumes that end goals such as employment are entirely within the control of a poor people if they would just try hard enough. This notion fails to recognize that, while personal responsibility is important, so too are structural obstacles in the economy, in the education system, in the housing market. We can hardly expect personal effort alone to overcome poverty without systemic investment on society’s part on the fronts beyond a poor person’s control.

The idea of a contract with punitive benchmarks also ignores lessons that researchers have learned about the effects of poverty on cognition. Princeton psychologist Eldar Shfair and Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan have argued that the stress of living in poverty sucks up mental bandwidth the rest of us take for granted. That mental tax means that a mom may forget to take her medication, or to pay a utility bill on time, with each mistake yielding a cascade of other problems. This means that living in poverty is like living without room for error. It also means that we should design anti-poverty programs that are flexible and forgiving, not punitive and deadline-oriented.

But Reihan defends Ryan’s paternalistic approach:

But wait a second, you might say—Social Security beneficiaries aren’t required to present a plan! Why should poor people be treated differently than workers who’ve been making Social Security contributions for decades, and who are collecting benefits at the end of a long working life? There’s actually a pretty straightforward reason: Social Security is designed for old people. No two old people are the same, to be sure, but they all have the same basic problem: They are too old to work, or to work very long hours. That’s a problem we can deal with.

People with low or no earnings, in contrast, face diverse obstacles. Some need short-term help to, say, fix their car, which will allow them to commute to work, or to make a deposit on a rental apartment. Others don’t have the skills they need to earn enough to support themselves and, for whatever reason, will have a very hard time acquiring them. Sure, you could give both kinds of people food stamps and call it a day. Or you could recognize that one-size-fits-all programs don’t do justice to the ways in which individual circumstances vary.

Waldman’s beef, meanwhile, is with the concept of block-granting welfare funds:

This sounds reasonable until you start to think about how it would play out. In practice, it’s likely that the states most eager to sign on would be precisely those that aren’t too happy about the ways the federal government provides benefits now. The devil would be in the details; what if a state decided to take its entire block grant and devote it to giving lectures to poor people on why they should get married? There could be a lot of needs going unmet while states implement their ideologically-driven visions of how poverty ought to be addressed.

Drum also has his doubts:

Overall, my initial reaction is that I like the idea of more rigorously testing different anti-poverty approaches, but I’m pretty skeptical of Ryan’s obvious preference for eventually eliminating most federal anti-poverty programs and simply sending the money to the states as block grants. This is a longtime conservative hobbyhorse, and not because states are models of efficiency. They like it because it restricts spending, especially during recessions when federal entitlement programs automatically increase but block grants don’t. That may please the tea party set, but it’s bad for poor people and it’s bad for the economy, which benefits from countercyclical spending during economic downturns.

Dylan Matthews voxplains the other main component of the plan, which entails an expansion of the earned income tax credit. In another post on the subject, Reihan comments on this aspect:

Ryan has not only embraced expanding the EITC for childless workers — he has largely embraced President Obama’s proposal for doing so, the difference being that he favors funding it via different means, the details of which will (of course) have to be fleshed out in the future. The EITC is not a perfect program, and there is an ongoing debate over how exactly it impacts the labor market. There is room to reform the EITC. Yet it is hard to deny that for workers with modest skills who’ve found that the market value of their labor has been under severe pressure, it has been a lifeline. Ryan has, in this discussion draft at least, chosen to accept the EITC’s flaws for now and to expand it. When asked to put up or shut up on raising the returns to work for low-wage workers, he has decided to put up. That strikes me as a pretty big deal. Where Ryan leads, let’s hope other GOP lawmakers will follow.

Highlighting a less prominent feature of the plan, Sullum cheers Ryan’s embrace of sentencing reform:

Under current law, Ryan notes in the paper outlining his proposals, “a single gram of crack cocaine could be all that separates a convict from a less-than-five-year sentence and a 40-year sentence. Rigid and excessive mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders, like these, may add to an already over-crowded prison system without appreciably enhancing public safety.” Ryan also endorsed the Public Safety Enhancement Act, which would let nonviolent offenders leave prison early if they complete evidence-based reintegration programs. “Here’s the point,” he said in his speech. “Nonviolent, low-risk offenders—don’t lock them up and throw away the key. Get them in counseling; get them in job training; help them rejoin and contribute to our society.”

(Photo: By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call via Getty)