When evaluating proposals from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), it's tempting to grade on a curve. After all, Ryan has unveiled some pretty offensive blueprints over the years -- most of them needlessly extreme, some of them based on data that just didn't add up -- and if we compare today's anti-poverty plan
to those recent offerings, this new package isn't the worst thing the Wisconsin Republican has presented to the public.
But that doesn't make it a good plan.
In the interest of magnanimity, let's acknowledge some of the good stuff. Ryan bucks his party, for example, by endorsing expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), an issue on which Democrats can and should welcome the opportunity to work with him. He's also prepared to embrace sentencing reforms, which is heartening, and his recommendations on occupational licensing aren't bad, either.
Perhaps most importantly, Ryan doesn't include any of the deep spending cuts to the safety net that have helped define the congressman's far-right budget proposals.
With this in mind, there's plenty not to like
in this conservative approach to combating poverty, including the block-grant boilerplate and the anti-environmental regularly "reforms," but it's only fair to acknowledge that this isn't just the same old Paul Ryan plan. It's qualitatively different, and in some respects, better. It's not good
by any stretch, but it's a small step in a sensible direction.
But there's one part of Ryan's proposal that I can't quite wrap my head around. From his speech
"[W]hat we need to do is coordinate assistance to families in need. Get the public and private sector working together. That's how we can smooth the transition from assistance to success. The fact is, each person's needs fit into a coherent whole: a career. And each person fits into a coherent whole: a community. So if the public and private sector work together, we can offer a more personalized, customized form of aid -- one that recognizes both a person's needs and their strengths -- both the problem and the potential."
As part of this "customized form of aid," Washington would give money to states, which states would then be expected to help low-income Americans through "certified service providers." The "providers," in Ryan's vision, would include non-profits, for-profits, or community groups, each of which would "provide personalized aid through case management."
If you're thinking that's a little weird, wait, it's probably worse than you think.
More from the congressman's speech:
"Under this plan, Andrea would go to a local service provider. She would sit down with a case manager and develop an 'opportunity plan.' That plan would pinpoint her strengths; her opportunities for growth; her short-, medium-, and long-term goals. The two of them would sign a contract. Andrea would agree to meet specific benchmarks of success, a timeline for meeting them, consequences for missing them, and rewards for exceeding them."
In other words, Paul Ryan envisions an entirely new taxpayer-financed bureaucracy of sorts, including beneficiaries and their new life-coaches -- not literal life-coaches, of course, but something close to it under Ryan's new approach.
Let's say you're a struggling, out-of-work 30-something, and you're going to need the safety net to help keep your head above water for a little while. Under the traditional approach, you'd be eligible for food assistance, housing aid, and maybe some educational or vocational training.
In Ryan's anti-poverty vision, you'll need a "customized" package, which you and your "certified" provider will work out while crafting your "opportunity plan." (Certified by whom? I have no idea.)
From there, you'll sign a contract -- you can afford a lawyer, right? -- with the realization that if you fall short of its provisions, you'll face "sanctions for breaking the terms of the contract
." Ryan didn't explain exactly what those "sanctions" might be, but I suspect it would involve poor people becoming a little poorer.
I guess big-government conservatism is back?
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.
Look for more on this on tonight's show.