Helping the poor by not helping them is bad policy

The new budget proposal released this week by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan alleges to balance the federal budget by 2023. However, the true goal of his proposal is not fiscal in nature. His true goal is ideological, and in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Ryan makes that point pretty plainly:

“A budget is a means to an end, and the end isn’t a neat and tidy spreadsheet,” Ryan writes. “It’s the well-being of all Americans. By giving families stability and protecting them from tax hikes, our budget will promote a healthier economy and help create jobs. Most important, our budget will reignite the American Dream, the idea that anyone can make it in this country.”

However, dramatically slashing food stamps, as Ryan proposes, will not “give families stability” or open doors to pursue the American dream. Slashing Medicaid, which provides health care for poor families, by some $757 billion will also undermine family stability. Slashing federal aid to education, including student loans and Pell grants, will reduce opportunity for young people. And turning Medicare into a private voucher program will make senior citizens more vulnerable, not less. In an era in which working people enjoy less and less of the nation’s bounty, such steps will leave them even more desperate, with fewer resources to draw upon.

Again, let’s be clear: The Ryan budget is not a response to our fiscal situation. It uses that situation as an excuse to continue a philosophical debate reaching back at least 80 years in this country, back to the founding of Social Security. The Republican Party fought Social Security back then, and it has tried repeatedly since then to kill the program, most recently with President Bush’s effort to privatize it.

“Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought here so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people,” one GOP congressman said in 1935, referring to Social Security. The party’s basic message and rhetoric — government enslavement, economic ruin, etc., — hasn’t changed much since.

In his op-ed, Ryan makes it quite clear that much of the burden of his proposed $4.6 trillion in budget cuts is intended to fall on the poor. Not to worry, though. It will be good for them:

“After the welfare reforms of 1996, child poverty fell by double digits. This budget extends those reforms to other federal aid programs. It gives states flexibility so they can tailor programs like Medicaid and food stamps to their people’s needs. It encourages states to get people off the welfare rolls and onto payrolls. We shouldn’t measure success by how much we spend. We should measure it by how many people we help. Those who protect the status quo must answer to the 46 million Americans living in poverty.”

Again, we see the Ayn Randian implication that government assistance creates poverty, and that withdrawal of assistance will reduce poverty. But let’s look at Ryan’s evidence, contained in the claim that “after the welfare reforms of 1996, child poverty fell by double digits.” He is clearly trying to suggest that welfare had kept people trapped in poverty, and that reducing welfare reduced poverty.

However, the data show that the decline in child poverty mentioned by Ryan had begun in 1993, well before welfare reform was enacted; the improvement was driven by the longest economic expansion in our nation’s history, not by withdrawal of government aid. In fact, by 2000, just four years after passage of the welfare reforms mentioned by Ryan, child poverty began rising again, and it rose steadily throughout the next decade.

So here’s the bottom line: In a society in which the gap between the rich and everybody else grows larger by the day, Ryan proposes to make that gap larger still through a reduction in government programs and through tax changes that benefit the wealthy. We just went through an election fought out on just those issues, an election in which Ryan played a prominent role as vice presidential nominee, and which he and his party lost.

But apparently, the message hasn’t stuck yet. As a nation, we do have to confront difficult budget choices, and entitlements must be part of that debate. But the answer is not to stick the burden almost exclusively on the least of us.