Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Paul Ryan's new attempt to conceal his attack on the social welfare system

Image: Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) (source)

Much noise was generated recently about Paul Ryan's supposed evolution on poverty. Every year, Ryan designs his ideal budget for the federal government, always calling for deep cuts to the social welfare system. In more recent iterations of his budget, he focused almost all of his enormous cuts to the social welfare system on antipoverty programs, leaving the parts of the social welfare system used by the nonpoor--like Social Security and Medicare--basically unscathed.

But when Ryan released a poverty plan last week, it featured restructured antipoverty programs--without reduced budgets. Was this an unprecedented change of heart--even a mea culpa--by the Republican wonk-in-chief? Had he reached a new understanding of poverty? Some thought so. Here, for example, is Ezra Klein's gullible write-up of Ryan's poverty plan entitled Democrats should welcome Paul Ryan's poverty plan. At the end, he concludes:
There will be charges of hypocrisy against Ryan's plan, and they're merited: his poverty plan and his budget cannot coexist in the same universe at the same time. Conservatives who spent the last few years cheering Ryan's budget are now cheering his poverty policies need to ask themselves some hard questions.

But more important than the contradictions in Ryan's plans is their progression: Ryan is refocusing himself and, perhaps, the Republican Party on reducing poverty by making the government's anti-poverty programs work better: that's a project that's both more important for the country and more amenable to compromise. Democrats should welcome it.
To his credit, Klein later interviewed a very skeptical Bob Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, who douses cold water on Klein's hope for an evolution on poverty by Ryan and the Republicans. (Klein should be lauded for his willingness to post interviews with people who convincingly refute each point of his previous columns; most would instead double down.)

Greenstein argues that every word of Paul Ryan's plan is designed to sound like a reform of antipoverty programs--plans to make them work better with the same amount of funding--but are actually designed to create opportunities to gut them in years to come. Ryan's poverty plan is a Trojan horse--a vehicle secretly designed to make a reality the deep cuts to the social welfare state he envisions in his budgets.

Paul Ryan is certainly capable of this type of deceit. As I wrote previously, deceit is utterly foundational to his career. He would be a complete unknown if he hadn't cloaked all of his budget proposals in lies. Each one of the budgets he prepares every year utilizes confusing baselines or incomplete information to hide what he actually wants to do: gut the social welfare state. Ryan's consistent efforts to win support by confusing voters and pundits reveal that even Ryan knows how unpopular his intentions are. His efforts to cloak in his 2010 budget the destruction of Medicare and taxes increases on 95% of all Americans are particularly amusing. Ryan wouldn't be a major figure if he promised budgetary miracles while delivering tax increases on 95% of Americans and a hollowed-out Medicare; he's only a major figure because he promises budgetary miracles while concealing tax increases on 95% of Americans and a hollowed-out Medicare.

Now, Ryan has apparently realized a weakness in his budgets: they can fool the typical pundit or voter, but someone with sufficient technical know-how will inevitably inspect his budgets and reveal what they actually do, not what Ryan says they do. Ryan hasn't evolved on poverty, he has merely realized that his goals need to be concealed better. So, he's found a way to make reasonable sounding policies that do not immediately gut the social welfare system, but--years from now--provide the means to slowly and inevitably gut government social welfare programs.

In this regard, Ryan is in no way unique. Conservative back-door strategies to gut social welfare programs is well documented and has been going on for decades. For example, George W. Bush's efforts to privatize Social Security were the final step in a conservative plan that had been in motion for decades. Like Ryan's antipoverty plan, these intentions were hidden for decades until George W. Bush attempted to finally spring the trap. (See the section on this page titled "Justifications for cutting Social Security.")

Specifically, Greenstein's criticism of Ryan's poverty plan centers around this indispensable analysis of TANF by CBPP, which I frequently cite (for example, here). The centerpiece of Ryan's poverty plan is block granting all antipoverty programs. TANF is an antipoverty program that replaced AFDC in 1996; since TANF is basically AFDC block granted (with several other key changes), TANF's story is likely to be the story of other antipoverty programs if block granted.

As Greenstein explains, block granting is a reasonable-sounding idea. In practice, however, block granting allows policymakers to slowly but surely dismantle a program without the hassle of further legislative changes. Annual cuts to a block granted program never need to be approved by Congress or signed into law by the president; as we shall see below, they become more or less inevitable.

A major strength of AFDC was its ability to expand according to need. When the economy was strong and the poverty rate low, AFDC funding decreased. But during recessions, the poverty rate increased, and funding for AFDC increased accordingly. Those newly impoverished from the weakening economy could begin receiving AFDC benefits almost immediately. However, the block granting structure of TANF makes this impossible. Block granting imposes a strict cap on funding--meaning that funding cannot increase during recessions. Absurdly, that means that people newly impoverished as a result of an economic recession cannot receive benefits.

The big picture is this: Under AFDC, every impoverished family could receive benefits. Block granted TANF means that not every impoverished family can receive benefits. Obviously, block granting is in no way inconsistent with Ryan's budgets; whatever the method, fewer poor people receive benefits. All this is clearly demonstrated in a graph from CBPP:

In addition to these problems, Greenstein argues persuasively that block granting also inevitably leads to decreases in spending. When TANF was passed, states were required not to cut spending--under the so-called Maintenance of Effort stipulations of the law. But as this very powerful graph from CBPP shows, the block granting structure is riddled with loopholes that virtually guarantee spectacular cuts in funding:

By any measure, funding has fallen precipitously due to the block granting structure. Time limits surely play a large role, but block granting is the reason why benefits have been severely cut in every state--so that not a single state has benefits that would bring a family to within 50% of the poverty line. To give that some perspective, 50% of the poverty line for a family of four is $11,925 annually. Even deep blue states like California and Vermont have slashed benefits to subpoverty levels; under the block granting structure, cuts like this are basically inevitable.

This isn't a broken system--this is exactly what the architects of TANF wanted to happen. And Ryan wants to do this to all antipoverty programs. Again, this plan is not in conflict with his budgets; they are different means to the same end. Greenstein makes other key points about the ways that Ryan's plan allow antipoverty programs to be gutted, even if they don't decrease funding immediately. Goals have not changed; only strategy has changed.

After this interview, Klein seems genuinely suspect of Ryan's motives regarding block granting. He also seems to understand that Ryan's shameless paternalism is problematic. But he wonders if Ryan's plan won't have some unintended consequences:
Even if you support the idea, the bureaucracy needed to effectively administer it is vast. To do this, and do it well, will be a tremendous undertaking. The old line goes that programs for the poor are poor programs. That's one reason there's a lot of interest among poverty fighters in direct cash grants: there's less creaky (and occasionally corrupt) bureaucracy and there's good evidence that the poor are perfectly capable of figuring out how to spend money. So even if it would be better to have the poor developing those life plans and working with those providers, what makes Ryan confident that this won't just turn into another massive, inefficient government bureaucracy that does as much harm as good for the poor?

Klein asks, 'what makes Ryan "confident" that this won't harm the poor?' Klein misses the point entirely. Ryan is not stupid. He understands what these policies will do. These are not unintended consequences. He is confident that this will harm the poor. That's the entire point, and another classic conservative strategy. For a recent example, here is another Wisconsin Republican, Scott Walker, executing that exact conservative strategy to keep the impoverished from accessing needed assistance:
At the height of the recession, in 2008 and 2009, requests for aid in Wisconsin, and throughout the country, soared. But in Milwaukee, where 41 percent of African-Americans live below the poverty line, people had trouble getting help. Roughly 95 percent of calls to the county’s client-intake call center went unanswered in 2008, a state probe later found.

The social services department budget funded 25 positions at the intake center, but a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter found only seven staffers working among empty cubicles when he visited. Advocates and the county workers’ union complained, but Walker stonewalled. Aided by the outcry, Walker began arguing for privatizing the social services intake unit. “He was managing it to fail,” charges AFSCME contract administrator Dave Eisner.

In June 2008, Legal Action of Wisconsin sued on behalf of thousands of needy people who couldn’t get benefits even though they qualified, because they couldn’t get their eligibility verified.
Like Walker, Ryan has realized that if he can't cut benefits via legislation, there are other ways. Walker's time in Milwaukee also shows how large bureaucracies--such as the one envisioned by Ryan--can be effectively utilized to wrongfully deny people benefits:
But the problems weren’t just at the call center. In 2008, one out of five food stamp recipients dropped for ineligibility were in fact eligible, and wrongly cut from the program...In June 2008 at least 3,000 people showed up before dawn seeking food vouchers in what was later called a “food riot.”

“The food crisis in Milwaukee and throughout the United States is worse than many of us have realized,” said Milwaukee Common Council president Willie Hines. “We expect long lines for free food in third-world countries.”

This whole piece really is worth reading in full--simply for a preview of Ryan's ideal world. Harming the poor is not an unintended consequence; it's the entire point. From block grants to enormous bureaucracies, Ryan's plans further the goal of reducing antipoverty benefits and the number of people able to obtain them.

Paul Ryan's poverty plan isn't a plan with flaws or unintended consequences. It is an excellent plan. If enacted, it will do exactly what he wants it to do: gut the social welfare system. In the past, he has cloaked his intentions in confusing budget baselines; now, he has found a more sophisticated smokescreen in "reforming" existing policies. This isn't a change in Ryan's views; it's a change of strategy. Even if they (rightly) disagree with his policy ideas, he's got many liberals fooled of his true intentions.

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