Ryan Calls for Overhaul of Anti-Poverty Programs

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A 204-page report released Monday by House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan provides ammunition for critics of government anti-poverty programs — but could also provide fodder for Democrats looking for an election-year bludgeon against Republicans.  

"For too long, we have measured compassion by how much we spend instead of how many people get out of poverty," Ryan said in a statement Monday. "We need to take a hard look at what the federal government is doing and ask, 'Is this working?'"  

The Wisconsin Republican said the report would "help start the conversation" and that the report "shows that some programs work; others don't." He also said that for many other anti-poverty programs, "we just don't know." "Clearly, we can do better," Ryan said. "We can rework these federal programs and help families in need lead lives of dignity."  

Ryan's report examines the history of poverty programs, and concludes that while programs like Medicaid, food stamps and Head Start were meant to eliminate poverty in America, "almost immediately, people identified disincentives associated with the collection of new programs."  

The report does laud state experimentation with welfare programs, and it praises the welfare overhaul of the 1990s.  

But the report concludes that the poverty rate is stuck at 15 percent — the highest in a generation, "And the trends are not encouraging. Federal programs are not only failing to address the problem. They are also in some significant respects making it worse. Changes are clearly necessary, and the first step is to evaluate what the federal government is doing right now … That is what this report aims to do. Because there are so many programs, it is difficult to pin down everything the federal government is doing to fight poverty and improve mobility. But the numbers below—from fiscal year 2012—are a good start:

  • The federal government spent $799 billion on 92 programs to combat poverty
  • Over 15 programs and over $100 billion spent on food aid
  • Over $200 billion spent on cash aid
  • Over 20 programs and over $90 billion spent on education and job training
  •  Nearly $300 billion spent on health care
  •  Almost $50 billion spent on housing

Not every program is counterproductive or unnecessary; indeed, some are very important. But the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty is an opportunity to review the record in full. And we should seize it."  

The report then goes on to detail a number of major anti-poverty programs with a brief purpose of the program, a lengthier history section, an evidence section where the report highlights certain analyses of that program to prove a conclusion -- like Head Start, "as a whole, is failing to prepare children for school" -- and it provides a section on the cost of each program.  

The report also offers this chart of the number of federal programs and the cost of them in fiscal 2012:

Program Area   # Of Federal Programs  Cost In FY2012
Cash aid  5  $220 billion
Education and job training  28  $94.4 billion
Energy  2  $3.9 billion
Food aid  17  $105 billion
Health care  8  $291.3 billion
Housing  22  $49.6 billion
Social Services  8  $13 billion
Veterans  2  $21.8 billion
TOTALS  92  $799 billion
Ryan's report does not promise overhaul — only a "conversation."  

But already there has been a sharp-partisan divide over these programs. While the report decrying a "poverty trap" that provides disincentives to work, Democrats have beaten up past Ryan budgets for balancing the books on the backs of the poor while protecting tax loopholes for the rich and corporations.  

The report targets a number of popular government assistance programs, like Head Start and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, while the report defends a number of tax credits, like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, saying that those tax credits provide incentives to work.  

Ryan said he hoped the report would inform the public debate, and he said the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, which was started under President Lyndon Baines Johnson during his 1964 State of the Union, was an "opportunity to review the record in full."