Will Paul Ryan's poverty plan pitch strike out?

Politics | The GOP budget guru’s poverty-fighting efforts come under fire as he holds a hearing with those on the front lines
by Edward Lee Pitts
Posted 5/01/14, 09:08 am

America’s poverty rate is the highest in a generation despite the fact that the federal government spends almost $800 billion a year on 92 different programs to fight poverty.

This is an irony Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican from Wisconsin whose has been branded the GOP’s budget guru, has been sharing with fellow lawmakers and the nation’s voters.

Ryan has unveiled a House Republican report on poverty that argues the 15 percent poverty rate is at least partly due to federal programs that not only fail to address the problems but sometimes make them worse. His report counts 15 programs for food aid and 20 tied to education and job training. This disarray creates what the report calls a “poverty trap” that encourages dependency on federal programs.

Ryan is taking that message to voters across America in an effort to combat perceptions that Republicans are insensitive to the poor. Ryan knows firsthand how that messaging has hurt the GOP—he was the vice presidential running mate for Mitt Romney’s failed White House bid in 2012.

Ryan’s efforts to find working solutions to poverty, coming on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, returned to Washington on Wednesday with a House Budget Committee hearing during which Ryan proposed something different for lawmakers: He urged them to listen.

For this hearing on the government and the poor—the third in a series he has held as chairman of the House Budget Committee—Ryan asked his colleagues on the committee to learn from people who have spent decades fighting on the poverty front lines.

“They’re helping families rebuild their lives, and in their own way, they’re helping expand opportunity in this country,” Ryan said at the hearing’s opening. “Today, we’re all ears.”

What lawmakers heard from two of the witnesses is that money does not solve poverty. These on-the-ground caregivers urged lawmakers to enforce a standard of accountability for what the government spends on its poverty programs because too often it becomes more about the programs and less about the people they are meant to serve.

Bob Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, told lawmakers about how the establishment of violence-free zones near public schools in Milwaukee has served nearly 900 at-risk youths since 1980. Having some of these students go to college instead of jail has saved Milwaukee County taxpayers an estimated $64 million, Woodson argued. Police there say car thefts in the surrounding communities have dropped 68 percent.

Woodson also talked about a church partnership for foster care in Somerset, N.J., that last year placed it’s 1,000th child into a home. Founded in 1996, Harvest of Hope Family Services is a foster care and adoption program that has trained more than 435 families to become licensed foster families at greatly reduced expenditures than what the government spends for similar services. 

From Woodson’s perspective, the fight against poverty gives too much money to academics to design remedies for the poor that are then “parachuted” into communities with the expectation that residents must participate.

“They ask not which problems are solvable but which ones are fundable,” Woodson told lawmakers. “So we have in fact created a commodity out of poor people where those who are providers are not responsible for producing outcomes. They measure success by how much they spend.”

Woodson said turning the poor into a commodity creates a perverse incentive where value is placed on keeping the poor tied to the government system. When they need more help, the program gets reimbursed at a higher rate. Woodson argued that success should be measured by how many people are helped not how many are served. He attacked the assumption that if you want to spend more money then you must care for the poor, while if you want to spend less dollars, it must mean you don’t care for the poor.

Woodson said both political parties have become what he calls public policy medical examiners who busy themselves by conducting endless pathology studies on what went wrong. Instead of writing failure studies about why a certain community has 70 percent of its population living in poverty, Woodson suggested examining how the other 30 percent are managing to live in that community with some success.

Bishop Shirley Holloway, the founder of the House of Help City of Hope, has served the poor in the Washington, D.C., area for nearly 20 years. Her group has reached nearly 40,000 people.

“I find that love is greater than any dollar,” Holloway told lawmakers. “Whatever solution that a person is given, if it doesn’t have love, it cannot heal.”

Holloway’s group provides what she calls intensive care—teaching life and coping skills to people battling abuse and addiction. She said doctors refer patients to her after the hospitals can no longer get any more federal dollars to pay for that patient’s prescription drugs.

She talked about a Baltimore man, addicted to drugs for 20 years, who smelled so bad that police refused to put him in their patrol cars after arresting him for stealing. The man is now married, with a job, an apartment, and a daughter.

“We looked at how he came in, and we looked at what he could be, and we started speaking that into him,” Holloway said. “So as long as you are talking about the problem and not the solution then the person is only going to see themselves as a problem. They need to know that somebody with a clean motive is invested in helping.”

The final step of the process is allowing patients to give back. People who have been hurting, after they get themselves on the road to recovery, want to be the givers of help too because that is “the place where you are fulfilled,” Holloway said.

What amounted to mini-lectures on poverty to the gathered lawmakers came as the U.S. economy expanded at just 0.1 percent in the months of January, February, and March. That was the slowest growth since rate since 2012. The hearing also came on the day Democrats in the Senate failed to advance a bill that would have increased the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.

Republicans argued that the jump in minimum wage would have been too high and too fast, undercutting any help to the poor by leading to job losses. Democrats are trying to make increasing the minimum wage one of their campaign issues for this fall’s key mid-term elections. They again want to paint the GOP as being insensitive to the poor.

Democrats also are trying to go after Ryan as he continues to publicize his version of the war on poverty. Ryan met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on Wednesday after its members criticized comments he made during a radio interview last month.

During that interview with Bill Bennett, Ryan said: “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

Some congressional Democrats called the remarks racist. While Ryan met with the members of the CBC on Wednesday, he did not directly discuss the radio comments, according to lawmakers who attended the meeting.

“The first step to real reform is a frank conversation,” Ryan said in a statement after the meeting. “We need to figure out what works; we need to learn from people who are fighting poverty on the front lines. And that conversation must go both ways. Simply defending the status quo or demanding more of the same is not an answer.”

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who was also at the private meeting, told reporters that Ryan, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, ought to give all sides a voice when it comes to the best ways to fight poverty.

“If you’re really serious about having a discussion on poverty, let’s have it out transparently, let’s have it out in the open,” Clyburn said.

Back at Wednesday’s hearing, Ryan said the question isn’t whether the federal government should help. The question, he argued, is how.

“Washington has a role to play,” Ryan said. “We do need a safety net, but there’s no substitute for economic growth. We need both of them to lift people out of poverty.”

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.

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