Ryan Hypes Right-Wing Media Fiction About “Benefit Cliffs” As “The Core” Of His Anti-Poverty Agenda
Blog ››› ››› CRAIG HARRINGTON
CNN allowed Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) to use a town hall event to promote his widely criticized “Better Way” poverty reform agenda unchallenged, including the discredited “welfare cliff” myth long promoted by right-wing media.
A member of the audience -- a Catholic priest and registered Republican -- asked Ryan what plans he had “to meet the basic human needs of the poor in this country, even if they’re here illegally,” during a July 12 town hall hosted by CNN’s Jake Tapper. The questioner juxtaposed the moral imperative to serve individuals “as human beings” without asking them “for their documentation” with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s “inhumane” stance on immigration.
Ryan’s initial response was littered with right-wing media talking points about President Obama’s supposed unwillingness to “secure the border” in order to fix the country’s “broken immigration system.” Ryan’s response then shifted to a supposed solution to poverty, which was also focused on myths frequently trumpeted by right-wing media, including how welfare “benefit cliffs” trap recipients in poverty. Ryan incorrectly claimed that the government’s “current approach” to poverty actually “perpetuates” it, and suggested that a “single mom with two kids” earning roughly $24,000 per year (barely above the federal poverty threshold) would rather live in poverty than get a raise “because of all the benefits she [would lose]” (emphasis added):
PAUL RYAN: Let me get to the poverty point you mentioned. Please take a look at our agenda. This is one of the most important reforms that I think we’re offering. Which is a better way to solve poverty -- “A Better Way To Fight Poverty.” Go to better.gop -- better.gop is where we’ve released our agenda. I spent the last four years going around this country visiting with poor communities, learning about the poor, and the suffering, and better ideas for fighting poverty. We’ve put in a very aggressive plan to go at the root causes of poverty, to try and break the cycle of poverty, and I would argue our current approach at the government of fighting poverty treats symptoms of poverty, which perpetuates poverty.
Our welfare system replaces work. It doesn't incentivize work. And as a result, we are trapping people in poverty. It's not working. So we think that there's a better way of reigniting what I call upward mobility, the American idea, and getting people out of poverty. Please take a look at these ideas. We have lots of them. I’d love to get into it if you give me time. But this is one of the things that we are talking about. Engaging with our fellow citizens, especially those who have slipped through the cracks, especially those that have no hope, that we have better ideas for helping them get back on their feet and converting our welfare system not into a poverty trap, but a place to get people from welfare to work.
JAKE TAPPER (HOST): Give me one idea. One poverty idea.
RYAN: Benefit cliffs. Right now, you stack all these welfare programs on top of each other and it basically pays people not to work. So you know who the highest tax rate payer (sic)? It’s not Anderson Cooper or Jake Tapper; it is the single mom with two kids making maybe -- earning $24,000, who will lose 80 cents on the dollar by taking a job or getting a raise because of all the benefits she loses. So, what happens is, we disincentivize work. We need to taper those benefits cliffs, customize welfare benefits to a person’s particular needs, and encourage work. So, you’ve got so much time to get these benefits, you have to have work requirements or job training requirements. Customize benefits to help a person with their problem. Whether it's addiction, whether it's education, or transportation.
Catholic Charities, by the way, is the model that I'm talking about. This is basically the Catholic Charities model. Customize support to a person and always make work pay. Make sure that you take the principles that we’ve used for welfare reform in the '90s, which are no longer really working or in place these days, to get people from welfare to work. And that's the core of what we are proposing.
The term "welfare cliff" was popularized by Pennsylvania's Republican-appointed Secretary of Public Welfare in a July 2012 report, which claimed a "single mom" could nearly double her net income by taking full advantage of nine distinct anti-poverty programs. But the concept of a trade-off between welfare and work dates back to a flawed Cato Institute study from 1995. One thing these studies have in common is the base calculation of benefits available to a hypothetical "single mom" with children. Most American workers aren't single mothers, most recipients of government benefits don't enroll in every single available program, and the value of federal benefit programs like welfare is less now than it was in years past -- facts that are not acknowledged in right-wing media discussions of anti-poverty programs.
Right-wing media outlets have repeatedly promoted the fantasy that low-income Americans would rather live in poverty than risk losing supposedly generous government benefits, and Paul Ryan is known for loyally parroting right-wing talking points about poverty. In fact, Ryan’s entire “Better Way” anti-poverty agenda for 2016 is built on right-wing media myths, including the so-called “benefit cliff” talking point. Journalists and experts slammed Ryan’s poverty plan, calling it a “seriously flawed” approach “based on faulty assumptions,” and concluding it is seemingly “designed to make it much harder for people in need” to access poverty alleviation programs. The same was true of his much-heralded 2014 anti-poverty plan. Ryan is right that there is a better way to fight poverty, but research by actual economists points to a reform agenda more like the factually based plan put forward by the Center for American Progress than the rehashing of right-wing myths endorsed by Ryan.
View the full exchange on poverty and immigration from CNN’s House Speaker Paul Ryan Town Hall: