In his final State of the Union address on January 12, President Obama mentioned Speaker Paul Ryan's renewed interest in tackling poverty. Ryan's poverty focus was most recently in the spotlight a few days earlier at the January 9 Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity, which he co-hosted with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). But time and time again, Ryan's expressed commitment to alleviating poverty has turned out to be just rhetoric -- including proposals that would actually hurt Americans in poverty -- and media have let him get away with it.
Let's review: Ryan has repeatedly proposed drastic benefit cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would leave millions of Americans without the help they need to put food on the table for their families. Experts have slammed his past budget plans as gateways to creating “more poverty and less opportunity.” His tax proposals would give more spending power to the wealthiest than they would the middle class and working poor. And his opposition to providing a living wage, affordable health care, and federal paid family leave to all Americans (except himself) flies in the face of expanding opportunity for parents and their children.
That hasn't kept the Beltway press from doting on Ryan's supposed anti-poverty plans, giving him and other right-wing political and media figures room for a fact-free, rhetoric-heavy, “populist” rebrand of the Republican Party just in time for 2016.
The Kemp Foundation's so-called “poverty forum” was filled with feel-good calls from Republican presidential hopefuls to “lift people up” and out of poverty, embrace Americans' right to “rise up,” and exhortations about our country's “moral imperative” to create opportunity for all.
To American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, it was just the reboot conservatives needed in an election year where Republicans' commitment to American economic security is under heightened scrutiny.
Many in the media fell for this image reboot hook, line, and sinker. Soon after the five-hour event, headline after headline credited Speaker Ryan for bringing a “dose of Kemp optimism” to the 2016 cycle and turning the race toward “a forgotten issue.” Others cast the congressman as a “star” for “deftly prodd[ing] GOP presidential candidates” on their plans.
But scratch beneath the glossy surface of Saturday's rosy, revivalist rhetoric and you'll find nothing but age-old right-wing media myths about the face of the American poor, along with supposed policy “solutions” that would throw millions of Americans back into poverty.
At the center of the forum was a portrait of America's poor that comes straight from the Fox News and Rush Limbaugh playbook -- a portrait that is completely unrepresentative of the actual realities of poverty in America today. Ryan, Scott, and the GOP candidates in attendance consistently conflated poverty with dependency, drug addiction, temptation to engage in criminal behavior, a lack of moral conviction, and an unwillingness to work.
These discussions echo the poor-shaming and vitriolic rhetoric that have become emblematic of right-wing media's discussion of the poor. Channeling countless Fox hosts' flawed assumptions that the poor are work-averse, the candidates called for more work requirements as a means to lift up those “who are completely dependent on government.”
What these demonizing portrayals ignore, however, is the truth. The working poor, the elderly, and the disabled make up 91 percent of safety net and social insurance beneficiaries.
There was also no shortage of single-motherhood-shaming and fearmongering about out-of-wedlock births, especially from former Fox News employees and current presidential candidates former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) and Ben Carson. Huckabee's Fox-honed habit of smearing unwed mothers reared its head as he promoted marriage as a key to eradicating poverty, despite the fact that there are more married parents living in poverty than never-married parents.
No questions were asked -- even from MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, who interviewed the event moderators and organizers -- about what candidates would do about marital poverty.
In addition to irresponsibly misrepresenting the poor, the summit's participants also dangerously distorted the impact of programs created during the “War on Poverty.”
Despite their presidential aspirations, many of the candidates rejected the idea that the federal government should play an active role in alleviating poverty in America. Some, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, falsely suggested that these programs -- which have actually kept millions out of poverty -- have only given Americans “the choice of earning more money on the couch than getting a job.” This off-hand dismissal of federal programs' success has also been a go-to tactic among right-wing media for years.
In reality, the social safety net has lifted millions of people out of poverty. In 2014, Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit, SNAP, and federal housing subsidies together protected more than 40 million Americans from poverty. But that didn't keep many speakers at the Kemp Forum from unfairly labeling such programs -- including SNAP and other nutritional assistance programs -- as failures.
The candidates also uniformly opposed raising the federal minimum wage, despite consistently demanding that more well-paying jobs be created. This counterintuitive stance is based on easily debunked fearmongering -- straight from the right-wing media noise machine -- that raising the minimum wage would kill jobs. In fact, study after study has shown that raising minimum wages has a positive or neutral impact on the job market and employment overall.
The evidence is clear that Speaker Ryan and his conservative colleagues haven't changed their positions on poverty -- they are simply rebranding tired and ineffective policies in an effort to convince voters that their party “cares” about the poor.
Media planning to give this effort more airtime should remember that the right's new talking points on this issue are only part of the story. They must also look at the reality of their policies -- which history has shown would turn the War on Poverty into a war on the poor.