During a March 3 interview at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Bold Media's editorial director Carrie Sheffield sat with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to promote their joint effort to spin cuts to federal anti-poverty assistance programs as a tool to help hardworking Americans escape poverty. However, the myth that these programs are harming the poor stems from a long-term right-wing media campaign against social safety programs and disregards experts who explain that these programs are actually helping to alleviate poverty.
Ryan, Sheffield Push The Myth That Federal Assistance Programs Are Hurting Efforts To End Poverty
Paul Ryan: Federal Government “Does More Harm Than Good” When It Assists The Poor. During a discussion at CPAC 2016, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Bold Media's Carrie Sheffield pushed a series of right-wing media-inspired myths, which included referring to government assistance programs as “trapping people in poverty, by basically paying people not to work” and delegitimizing food and housing assistance programs started more than 50 years ago by President Johnson to assist the poor that are commonly referred to as “War on Poverty” programs. Ryan also misleadingly claimed that “we basically have a stalemate on our hands” with regard to reducing poverty in the United States, despite 50 years of work and “trillions [of dollars] spent” (emphasis added):
PAUL RYAN: As conservatives, I think we can get the moral high ground. And the goal here is to go at the root causes of poverty to help break the cycle of poverty. And to call into question the status quo of this War on Poverty, which is basically been 50 years, trillions spent, and we basically have a stalemate on our hands. And we think by applying our principles we can see better results and actually get at the root causes of poverty. And the comeback video just shows you what our principles look like in real life.
CARRIE SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, that's -- I want to pick on what you said, which was that conservatives traditionally have been been back on our heels. We've been pushed back by liberals to say we don't care about the poor; we don't care about people who've been left behind. But that couldn't be more far from the truth, as you know. And tell us why that is. Why does government actually exacerbate the problem of poverty rather than trying to solve it?
RYAN: Two things. I think we've lost the definition of success in the war on words, I guess. We have been defining success as how much money are we spending, how many government programs have we created, how many people are on those programs. That's success. Well, why don't we think about measuring poverty -- success in the War on Poverty by how many people are we getting out of poverty? How many people are getting on their own two feet and living lives of their own, shaping their own destiny? Reaching their version of the American Dream. So that's point number one. Point number two is what we are doing is we are saying the government in so many ways has been a part of the problem. I call it the “poverty trap.”
If you take all these government programs -- I'm just talking about the federal government, about 92 federal programs spending $800 billion a year. And they're all stacked up on top of each other. And what they effectively end up doing is they tell people don't work. They make it harder for a person to work. The top effective tax rate in America today is not being paid by Warren Buffett, or Bill Gates, or Aaron Rodgers. And Aaron Rodgers probably deserves that tax rate. It's paid by, you know, the single mom with two kids making 20-somethingthousand dollars that if she gets a raise she'll lose 80 cents on the dollar, so she doesn't. Or if she goes to work she loses more benefits than she gains in going to work. So we're trapping people in poverty, by basically paying people not to work. So we need to make it so that work always pays. And what we're doing with these programs is we're isolating the poor. We're pushing people outside of the workforce, and they're missing out and we're missing out on their talents. So we think good conservative welfare reform moving from welfare to work, going with what works, and letting local communities have more power to revive their communities, like these guys do in these great videos.
SHEFFIELD: So you're saying the federal government doesn't know what it's doing, and local communities do?
RYAN: They do. Not only does the federal government not know what it's doing, the federal government thinks it knows what it's doing and when it doesn't it actually does more harm than good in many cases, now I'm not saying --
SHEFFIELD: You're absolutely right. [CSPAN3, 3/3/16]
Bold Blog: Sheffield And Ryan Will Sit Down To Discuss How " A Blank Government Check Cannot Heal A Broken Heart Or Home." In a March 3 post on the conservative blog Bold, founder and editorial director Sheffield announced that she would be sitting down with Ryan to discuss “how we as conservatives need to embrace the issues of poverty alleviation and social mobility,” and describing conservative beliefs on poverty issues:
Today I plan to discuss with Speaker Ryan how we as conservatives need to embrace the issues of poverty alleviation and social mobility. We will explore some of the themes researched by a host of scholars like Scott Winship, Arthur Brooks, Charles Murray, Robert Putnam, Orlando Patterson, Isabel Sawhill, whose work informs the quantitative analysis behind what we already know as conservatives: that a blank government check cannot heal a broken heart or home. That a decline in civil society and social capital undermine the war on poverty. That strong families are key factors in fighting poverty, crime, drug addiction and incarceration. That economic opportunity and personal responsibility are more potent tools to fighting poverty than a sprawling, distant, federal bureaucracy.
We know these facts as conservatives, and it's time we found new ways to share these messages with the world. [Bold, 3/3/16]
Ryan's “Poverty Trap” Comments Echo Right-Wing Media Smears
Fox Correspondent Hyped Discredited “Welfare Cliff” To Claim Low-Income Workers Are Trapped In Poverty. On the July 22, 2015 editions of Fox News' America's Newsroom, Happening Now, and Special Report, correspondent Dan Springer reported that many low-income workers in Seattle were gaming the system in the wake of the city's minimum wage increase so they could stay below the poverty line and “stay on certain welfare programs.” Springer's report, which was based entirely on a conversation with conservative radio host Jason Rantz, and absent any information from actual anti-poverty program recipients, echoed the notorious and discredited “Welfare Cliff” myth frequently pushed by the network. [Media Matters, 7/23/15]
Fox Pushed Absurd Notion That Fast-Food Workers Turn Down Huge Salaries To Keep “The Free Stuff From The Government.” On the June 24, 2015 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy endorsed the absurd notion forwarded by fast-food CEO Andy Puzder that some low-wage employees were turning down promotions for jobs that could lead to $80,000 annual salaries because they “don't want to lose the free stuff from the government.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 6/24/15]
Fox's Charles Payne: “Obamaphone” Subsidies Tantamount To “Enslavement” Of The Poor. On the May 29, 2015 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, Fox Business host Charles Payne hyped so-called “Obamaphones,” which are actually discount phones given to low-income Americans under the Lifeline program, to claim that the federal government was “feather[ing] the nest” by making poverty more comfortable for low-income Americans. Prior to his appearance, Payne had tweeted that a proposed expansion of the Reagan-era telecommunications subsidy program was tantamount to “further enslavement of the 'poor.'” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 5/29/15]
Fox's Payne: The War On Poverty Rewards And Encourages “Mediocrity.” On the May 1, 2015 edition of Fox & Friends, Fox Business host Charles Payne attacked Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) for connecting systemic economic inequality to civil unrest in some poor communities, claiming that it was “an old, tired excuse.” Co-host Steve Doocy added that “for decades, we have poured trillions of dollars into the War on Poverty, and it hasn't worked” to which Payne added “what we have done, what we're trying to do, is reward mediocrity.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 5/1/15]
Right-Wing Media Hype Flawed Study Claiming “The Current Welfare System... Acts As A Disincentive For Work.” On August 19, 2013, the libertarian Cato Institute released a report titled “The Work Versus Welfare Trade-Off: 2013,” which promoted the misleading claim that "[t]he current welfare system provides such a high level of benefits that it acts as a disincentive for work." The report was uncritically promoted by right-wing outlets such as Breitbart News, The Washington Examiner, and Fox News, despite that fact that its methodology had been thoroughly debunked. [Media Matters, 8/19/13]
Fox's Payne: Not Enough “Stigma” Is Directed At Food Stamp Recipients. On the March 28, 2013 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, Fox Business host Charles Payne alleged that federal benefit programs trap people in poverty and complained that there wasn't enough “stigma” directed at poor Americans for using food assistance programs. [Fox News, America's Newsroom, 3/28/13]
Fox's Stuart Varney: Thanks To Government Handouts The Poor “Have Things -- What They Lack Is The Richness Of Spirit.” On the August 25, 2011 edition of Fox Business' Varney & Co. at Night, host Stuart Varney defended himself against criticism that he shames the poor by arguing that “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.” [Fox Business, Varney & Co. at Night, 8/25/11]
Experts Agree That Ryan's Anti-Poverty Proposals Would Be “Brutal” For Struggling Americans
CEA Report Debunk's Paul Ryan's SNAP Criticism. On December 29, 2015, NPR reported on a Council of Economic Advisers report that found that -- contrary to Ryan's assertion that, “We are trapping people in poverty” with programs like SNAP -- the food assistance program alone kept almost 5 million people out of poverty in 2014, including 2 million children:
Early this month, House Speaker Paul Ryan asked a crowd in Washington, D.C., “What kind of country do we want to be?” As he unfurled his sweeping 2016 agenda, he returned to one of his signature issues: public benefit programs. There are just too many, and they don't work, he said: “We are trapping people in poverty.”
Among the programs in Ryan's sights is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal government program also known as food stamps. But a few days after his speech, the White House came to SNAP's defense. The Council of Economic Advisers published a report painting a picture of an effective, albeit limited, program that feeds the hungry and thwarts poverty. “New research has come out that is really compelling,” says co-author and CEA member Sandra Black. “We think it is important to show that both the benefits of this program are huge and it's insufficient as it is.”
Today 46.5 million Americans get SNAP benefits -- on average about $125 a month per person to buy food from authorized retailers. The CEA report finds SNAP is best at doing what it's intended to do: keep people from going hungry. But it also reduces poverty overall. According to the authors, in 2014 the program kept close to 5 million people out of poverty, 2 million of them kids. [NPR, 12/29/15]
MSNBC's Steve Benen: Ryan's Policies Are “Brutal” For the Poor. On May 6, 2015, MSNBC's Steve Benen stated that, although Ryan says he is “focused on poverty,” he is proposing legislation that would, in reality, be “brutal towards those actually in poverty.” Ryan had proposed cutting taxes for the rich while slashing public assistance for the poor, which led Benen to question whether Ryan truly understood the subject matter:
Nearly two years ago, not long after his failed bid for national office, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) appeared on msnbc and told Joe Scarborough, “I'm focused on poverty these days.”
It seemed like an odd thing to say. Ryan was, and is, perhaps best known for his far-right budget plan that cuts taxes for the wealthy by hundreds of billions of dollars, while slashing investments in programs that benefit working families. For the Republican congressman to say he's “focused on poverty” was belied by his actual policy agenda, which is brutal towards those actually in poverty.
The full Vox takedown is worth reading in detail, but stepping back, what does it tell us about the seriousness of Ryan's approach to policymaking when he focuses on poverty for years and still doesn't seem to know what he's talking about? [MSNBC.com, 5/6/15]
CBPP: Paul Ryan's House GOP Budget Plan Would Have Created “More Poverty And Less Opportunity.” When Paul Ryan unveiled his 2014 House GOP budget plan, Robert Greenstein, the president of the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), noted that, under the Ryan budget, “Affluent Americans would do quite well. But for tens of millions of others, the Ryan plan is a path to more adversity.” Greenstein pointed out that the plan would have left millions without health insurance by repealing the Affordable Care Act and implementing changes to Medicaid funding. Greenstein also criticized the budget for its impact on anti-poverty programs, estimating that it would:
- Slash basic food aid provided by SNAP by at least $135 billion and convert the program to a block grant. The Ryan budget includes every major benefit cut in the harsh SNAP bill that the House passed in September, which CBO estimated would end benefits to 3.8 million low-income people in 2014. The budget also would block-grant SNAP in 2019, with further steep funding cuts. States would be left to decide whose benefits to cut -- poor children, working-poor parents, seniors, people with disabilities, or others struggling to make ends meet. They would have no good choices, as SNAP provides an average of only $1.40 per person per meal.
- Make it harder for low-income students to attend college. Ryan proposes to cut Pell Grants by more than $125 billion over the next decade. He would freeze the maximum grant for ten years, even as college tuition costs continue to rise. The maximum Pell Grant already covers less than a third of college costs, compared to more than half in earlier decades. Yet under the Ryan budget, the grant would fall another 24 percent by 2024 in inflation-adjusted dollars. (Some of that reduction is in the budget baseline, but Ryan would substantially enlarge it.) He also would make some moderate-income students who get modest help from Pell Grants today entirely ineligible.
- Make massive unspecified cuts in a part of the budget in which low-income programs -- including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which Ryan praised in his recent poverty report -- make up a substantial share of the expenditures. His budget calls for at least $500 billion in cuts to mandatory programs other than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, Pell Grants, farm programs, civil service programs, and veterans' benefits. A substantial share of spending in this category is for low-income programs, including the EITC, the low-income component of the Child Tax Credit, the school lunch and other child nutrition programs, and Supplemental Security Income, which helps very poor people who are elderly or have serious disabilities. [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 4/1/14]
Paul Krugman: “Over The Medium Term ... It's A Plan To Savage The Poor While Giving Big Tax Breaks To The Rich.” In a March 21, 2012 post on his New York Times blog, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman noted that Ryan's plan would “savage the poor while giving big tax breaks to the rich”:
[Ryan's] latest budget proposal has received some harsh critiques. It calls for huge tax cuts, supposedly offset by closing loopholes and ending tax expenditures - except that in a long report he fails to name a single tax expenditure that he would cut. It assumes drastic cuts in discretionary spending, basically eliminating everything except defense. And over the medium term, of course, it's a plan to savage the poor while giving big tax breaks to the rich. [The New York Times, 3/21/12]
The War On Poverty Is Working For Tens Of Millions Of Americans
Jared Bernstein: Federal Programs Are Working, But Growing Economic Inequality Strains The System. In a January 6, 2014 blog post for The New York Times, economist Jared Bernstein wrote about the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, highlighting how War on Poverty programs had successfully reduced poverty rates for tens of millions of Americans, especially the elderly who were particularly susceptible to elevated poverty rates before the creation of Social Security and Medicare. Bernstein also noted that growing economic inequality -- among other factors -- was adding strain to the programs and causing poverty rates to remain artificially high, making them seem less effective than they really are:
This week marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, a broad set of policy initiatives designed to reduce poverty in America.
Or, if you're so inclined, an opportunity to echo President Reagan's line: “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”
So, which is it?
It turns out to be a bit of a trick question. It's easy to show that much of what we've done to reduce poverty has been highly successful. Social Security -- a New Deal program that was expanded in the 1960s -- today reduces the official elderly poverty rate from 44 percent without counting Social Security benefits to 9 percent with them. That development alone belies the facile Reagan quip. More careful analysis of the benefits of our current set of anti-poverty programs, reviewed below, further underscore this point.
Yet I suspect that if I could sit President Johnson down and explain to him all we've done to maintain and expand the policy arsenal he helped to introduce half a century ago, he'd be surprised that there's still so much economic hardship.
The reason, however, is not the ineffectiveness of the anti-poverty programs that his administration introduced and strengthened. It's that they've had to work much harder in an economy that has made it a lot tougher for those at the bottom to get ahead. If this is a war, then it is not just the anti-poverty forces that have gotten stronger over time, as revealed by the growing distance between the two top lines in the figure. The opposing army, wielding weapons of inequality, globalization, deunionization, lower minimum wages, slack labor markets and decreasing returns to lower-end jobs, has also gained much strength.
[The New York Times, 1/6/14]
Economists Responded To Ryan's War On Poverty Report, Stating He Misrepresented Their Research. On March 4, 2014, The Fiscal Times reported that numerous economists noted that their work was misrepresented by Paul Ryan in his report purporting to summarize five decades of a failing “War on Poverty.” Columbia University economist Jane Waldfogel stated that Ryan's report “seemed to arbitrarily chop off data from two of the most successful years of the war on poverty.” The article continued (emphasis added):
The Columbia researchers found that, using their model of the SPM, the poverty rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 15 percent in 2012. Ryan only cites data from 1969 onward, ignoring a full 36 percent of the decline.
“It's technically correct, but it's an odd way to cite the research,” said Waldfogel. “In my experience, usually you use all of the available data. There's no justification given. It's unfortunate because it really understates the progress we've made in reducing poverty.”
The Ryan report uses the same paper to support its assertion that a welfare reform program instituted in 1996 was the cause of a decline in child poverty.
Chris Wimer, the lead author on the paper and a researcher at Columbia, said Ryan's conclusion ignores the major expansion of the earned-income tax credit in 1993 and the roaring dotcom economy of the mid-to-late 1990s. “While our data can't disentangle those three things, attributing the decline in poverty after 1993 to the welfare reform of 1996 seems to go beyond what the data show,” Wimer said.
Barbara Wolfe, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said Ryan's paper simply misstates the findings of one of her papers studying the effect of housing assistance on labor outcomes. [The Fiscal Times, 3/4/14]