The Worst Part Of Paul Ryan's Poverty Plan Is Based On A Media Myth

Rep. Paul Ryan's poverty proposal, which would in part punish impoverished Americans for not getting themselves out of poverty on a specific timeline, is based on the conservative myth pushed by right-wing media that blames poverty on individuals' “spirit” and personal life choices. Experts say poverty is the result of systemic inequality and lack of opportunity.

Ryan Plan: Social Safety Net Beneficiaries Must Sign “Contracts”

Ryan's Poverty Plan: Low-Income Families Will Be Held To “A Contract Outlining Specific And Measurable Benchmarks For Success.” The “discussion draft” submitted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to the House Budget Committee on potential solutions to poverty in America includes the proposal that low-income Americans would have to sign “contracts” in order to remain eligible for social safety net benefits, such as food stamps, or SNAP. The contract would include: benchmarks, such as finding a job, enrolling in employment training, or even meeting “new acquaintances outside circle of poverty”; a “timeline” in which individuals are contractually-obligated to meet those benchmarks; bonuses for meeting benchmarks early; and “sanctions for breaking the terms of the contract”:

In the envisioned scenario providers would work with families to design a customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty. When crafting a life plan, they would include, at a minimum:

  • A contract outlining specific and measurable benchmarks for success
  • A timeline for meeting these benchmarks
  • Sanctions for breaking the terms of the contract
  • Incentives for exceeding the terms of the contract
  • Time limits for remaining on cash assistance [House Budget Committee, “Expanding Opportunity in America,” 7/24/14]

Ryan Plan Assumes “That The Poor Somehow Want To Be Poor”

NYMag's Annie Lowrey: Ryan's “Condescending” Plan “Threatens To Punish The Poorest And Most Unstable Families For Their Poverty.” Annie Lowrey of New York magazine explained that Ryan's proposal is based on the assumption “that the poor somehow want to be poor,” noting that the contract proposal assumes that low-income Americans either need the threat of punishment as motivation, or that they are themselves deficient and incapable of success:

[I]t 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.   


[I]t threatens to punish the poorest and most unstable families for their poverty and instability. Let's say you're a single mom with five kids. You break your contract. You get “sanctioned” -- a term normally used for money-launderers, terrorists, and narcotics traffickers, by the way. You suffer, and you fall deeper into poverty. But more to the point, your children suffer. [New York, 7/24/14]

Ryan Previously Blamed Inner City Men For Their Poverty. The idea that poverty is a product of lazy, deficient individuals -- rather than the product of systemic inequality and a lack of resources and opportunities -- is an idea Ryan has pushed before. Just this past March, Ryan blamed inner city men for their poverty, citing a “culture problem”:

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 the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with. [ThinkProgress, 3/12/14]

Ryan's Poverty-Shaming Plan Echoes Right-Wing Media Rhetoric

Fox's Stuart Varney On The Poor: “Many Of Them Have Things -- What They Lack Is The Richness Of Spirit.” Fox Business host Stuart Varney claimed in 2011 that because poor people have “modern conveniences,” such as refrigerators and air conditioning, official poverty figures are inaccurate. After he was mocked by comedian Jon Stewart for his poverty-shaming, Varney doubled down on his show, claiming:

VARNEY: The image we have of poor people as starving and living in squalor really is not accurate. Many of them have things -- what they lack is the richness of spirit. That's my opinion. [Fox News, Your World with Neil Cavuto, 7/19/11; Fox Business, Varney & Co., 8/25/11]

Limbaugh: “In Many Cases” Poor People “Have Only Themselves To Blame.” Lamenting President Obama's focus on income inequality in the run-up to the 2012 election, radio host Rush Limbaugh asserted that “in many cases, speaking bluntly, the people that don't do well have only themselves to blame. And those who have no control over themselves are the ones we help.” He added, “the only limits in this country on anybody's advancement is their own limitation that they place on themselves.” [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 2/21/14]

Fox's Charles Payne: “Stigma” Can Serve As “Impetus To Get People Off” Food Stamps. Discussing an increase in people signing up for SNAP, Fox News contributor and Fox Business host Charles Payne lamented the lack of “stigma” surrounding food stamps. According to Payne, “I know there's a big thing trying to de-stigmatize food stamps, but the good part about the stigma is it actually does serve as an impetus to get people off of it.” [Fox News, America's Newsroom3/28/13]

NRA's Ted Nugent: America's “So-Called” Poor “Whine,” Even Though They Have Microwaves And “Bling-Bling.” In a column for conspiracy website WND, National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent claimed that poor people in America have “no one to blame but themselves” and “whine” despite having various “luxuries” that “real poor people around the world ... can only dream of”:

As the Democrats continue to get away with their crimes, the squawking poor just keep on getting poorer, and as is always the case, they have no one to blame but themselves. Stupid is as stupid does. Brainwashing only works if you give up your brain and your soul to the brainwashers.

Another mind-boggling conundrum is the fact that America's so-called poor live a life far better than do real poor people around the world and have luxuries they can only dream of.

With their cell phones, automobiles, microwave ovens, air-conditioning, new clothes, manicures and pedicures, bling-bling, clean water, more food than they can eat, pretty much redistributed everything handed to them, they still whine how America should be more like those other countries. [WND, 7/16/14]

Times' David Brooks Blames Single Mothers For Their Poverty. David Brooks scapegoated unmarried moms for their poverty in his New York Times opinion column, claiming that “someone being rich doesn't make someone poor,” and arguing that discussions of income inequality have been too focused on disparities in wealth and not focused enough on the “fraying of social fabric” and the “morally fraught social and cultural roots of the problem,” which he pinned in part on single motherhood. [New York Times, 1/16/14]

New York Post Columnist Michael Goodwin: “The Sense Of Shame Is Gone” From People Using “Entitlements.” During an appearance on Fox News' Fox & Friends, Fox News contributor and NY Post columnist Michael Goodwin lamented that “the sense of shame is gone,” which has helped lead to an “explosion of entitlements”:

GRETCHEN CARLSON (co-host): Are too many Americans avoiding work to collect welfare? Well, check this out. Just last year, 45 million Americans received food stamps. That's a 70 percent increase since President Obama took office. So you have to wonder: Are entitlements the new American dream. Joining me now, Michael Goodwin, Fox News contributor and columnist for the New York Post. You know, I almost get a stomach ache saying that because when you think of the American dream, you certainly don't think about handouts, but is that what we're becoming?

GOODWIN: Well, it's interesting. The thing I write about in here is the idea that shame used to be part of this. In other words, people didn't want to accept a handout because they were ashamed to do it. There was a kind of social contract that said you don't do it. You're independent, you're reliant. That was part of the American founding virtue, as Charles Murray calls them.

And yet now we look at them, we see this explosion of entitlements. The sense of shame is gone. So I focus this week on food stamps, which I think is a real cultural issue, because it's now 47 million people in the country are on food stamps. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 5/21/12]

Experts Agree: Poverty Results From Inequality, Not A Lack Of Motivation

Jared Bernstein: Growing Inequality Increases Poverty. On The New York Times' Economix blog, economist Jared Bernstein noted that economic growth alone had been enough to reduce poverty “from the late 1950s to the mid-'60s,” but that growing economic inequality meant poverty rates failed to decrease further:

If less of the economy's market-generated growth -- i.e., before taxes and transfers kick in -- ends up in the lower reaches of the income scale, either there will be more poverty for any given level of G.D.P. growth, or there will have to be a lot more transfers to offset inequality's poverty-inducing impact.


Inequality serves as a wedge or a funnel in this model, redirecting growth from a broad swath of households across the income scale to a narrow slice at the top. [The New York Times, Economix Blog, 1/13/14]

Paul Krugman: Income Inequality Is Caused By A Lack Of Economic Opportunity, Not A “Collapse Of The Family.” Economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman argued on his New York Times blog that income inequality today is caused by a lack of economic opportunity, rather than social disintegration or the “collapse of the family”:

These days crime is way down, so is teenage pregnancy, and so on; society did not collapse. What collapsed instead is economic opportunity. If progress against poverty has been disappointing over the past half century, the reason is not the decline of the family but the rise of extreme inequality. We're a much richer nation than we were in 1964, but little if any of that increased wealth has trickled down to workers in the bottom half of the income distribution. [The New York Times, 1/8/14]

Institute For Research On Poverty: Government Programs Cut Poverty Rate “Nearly In Half.” According to research from the Institute for Research on Poverty, anti-poverty programs have lifted millions of Americans out of poverty since the 1960s. While reducing poverty is only one step toward reducing inequality, the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs shows the effect government policy could have on economic conditions (emphasis added):

The OPM [official poverty measure] shows the overall poverty rates to be nearly the same in 1967 and 2011--at 14 percent and 15 percent, respectively. But our counterfactual estimates using the anchored SPM show that without taxes and other government programs, poverty would have been roughly flat at 27 to 29 percent, while with government benefits poverty has fallen from 26 percent to 16 percent--a 40 percent reduction. Government programs today are cutting poverty nearly in half (from 29 percent to 16 percent) while in 1967 they only cut poverty by about a one percentage point one percentage point. [Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 12/11/13]