By David K. Shipler
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is busily issuing paper after paper on his party’s “core principles” regarding poverty, health care, national security, the tax code, and the like. These are meant to be serious proposals for reform, and they should be taken seriously, for some of them pose serious threats to less fortunate Americans.
That is especially so with Ryan’s anti-poverty plan entitled “A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America.” The 35-page document is heavily punitive, advocating sanctions against the poor if they do not achieve employment. If the plan were implemented by a Republican Congress under a Trump administration, it would further shred the safety net that now protects numerous innocent children from hunger and homelessness.
The damage would be done in two ways: first, by requiring heads of poor households to get jobs or lose their food stamps and housing subsidies—in effect, adding to those essential benefits the work requirements that currently limit cash welfare checks through Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). In other words, if you don’t get a job, no help getting food for your kids and keeping a roof over your family’s head.
Second, Ryan would decentralize accountability by cutting most strings that are attached by the federal government to state and local expenditures of federal funds. So, recipients of grants would have pretty free rein to spend the money as they wish. Unfortunately, not all states care much about poor people, as we’ve seen in the Republican-led states that have rejected Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid, even though the cost is borne almost entirely by Washington.
Ryan is a master of political sleight of hand. He couches much of the proposal in acceptable terms, arguing that people should be helped to become self-sufficient through work rather than be imprisoned endlessly in poverty. Who can disagree? In practice, though, his document is governed by an assumption that the poor are irresponsible, that they won’t get themselves into jobs and out of trouble without being threatened by cuts in assistance.
It’s an old Republican canard, based on moral contempt for those without money. Sure, there are people at all socio-economic levels—including the wealthy—who don’t want to work hard, or at all. But all you have to do is spend some time with folks in poverty to learn quickly how desperate many of them are for fulltime, well-paid employment, particularly if it carries the potential for advancement. Much of the low-skilled job market is a trap, with paltry wages and no pathway up. Ryan has nothing to say about that.
Then, too, a single parent in poverty needs a broader support system to enable her to hold a decent job. Recognition of this fact is one glimmer of light in the Republican proposal, which acknowledges the interacting elements of poverty. The paper mentions the need for child care, help with transportation, and training to upgrade people’s skills. The trouble is, it contains no dollar estimates of the cost and no pledge to appropriate the needed money. It thus repeats the failure of the 1996 welfare reform law, which imposed time limits and work requirements on receiving cash but did not provide sufficient funds for child care and vocational training.
Nor does the Republican blueprint address problems in the private marketplace. It says not a word about raising the minimum wage, which Republicans across the country have almost universally opposed. It does not honor the fact that labor unions, and collective bargaining, can improve benefits and so make having a job just the kind of “better way” that Ryan envisions; instead, Republicans have been trying to crush unions. It mentions the need for improved pre-school and primary education, but it fails to call for more money to combat the deficiencies in skills among large portions of the American workforce.
Embedded in the proposals are a few worthy ideas. One is to ease the steep declines in certain benefits that are imposed as a person’s earned income rises. On balance, sometimes, a worker who loses food stamps or housing subsidies can be slightly better off without a job, or at very low pay, than in a position with a higher wage. This can be a deterrent to getting work with a higher salary, seeking a raise, or even accepting a promotion. Ryan wants to change that dynamic in the Earned Income Tax Credit, to “help smooth the glide path from welfare to work.” It’s a sensible notion, although he stops short of urging funds to pay for it, and he fails to apply the same reasoning to advocate more gradual phase-outs of other benefits. He thus leaves the impression—an old Republican myth—that the problem resides in the benefits themselves, rather than their structure and implementation.
In an odd coincidence, Ryan released his anti-poverty plan the same day he felt compelled to condemn Donald Trump for racism, which came just days after endorsing him for president. If Ryan is correct about Donald Trump—that he can maintain the Republican party’s “core principles” and that his attack on a federal judge for having Mexican parents fit the “textbook definition of a racist comment”—then it is not illogical to conclude that one of the party’s core principles must be racism, as Andrew Rosenthal has acerbically documented in The New York Times. The racism of the practiced professionals is usually more cleverly masked than Trump’s bigotry, but nonetheless guides the party’s policy positions on key issues, including voting rights and economics.
In the context of the Republican nominee’s “trickle-down racism,” as Mitt Romney called Trump’s brand of bigotry, the poverty plan takes on an unmistakable whiff. The fact is, just over half of the poor people in America are minorities. About 40 percent of Americans below the poverty line are white non-Hispanics, and the poverty rate in that group is 10 percent. The poverty rates of minorities are much higher: 26 percent of blacks are poor, and 24 percent of Hispanics. So, while millions of whites feel the impact of anti-poverty policies—and many of them appear to be Trump supporters this year—the major consequences of the substantial changes Ryan recommends would hit blacks and Hispanics, few of whom vote Republican.
Lower-income people are also the targets of repeated Republican efforts to cut off Medicaid reimbursements to Planned Parenthood, not just for contraception but for cancer screenings and other women’s health services. More than three-quarters (79 percent) of Planned Parenthood’s patients are below 150 percent of the poverty line.
Then there are the symbols of racism. Earlier this week, when a House bill funding Zika virus research and prevention was sent to the Senate, it contained an incongruous ban on the Confederate battle flag being flown at federal cemeteries. Senate Republicans deleted the prohibition so the flag could proudly wave. They also inserted a $540-million cut in money to help citizens of lesser means buy health insurance under Obamacare. These provisions, poison pills to the Democrats, killed the Zika bill entirely, so the world’s richest country, trying to be “great again,” sits on its hands in the face of a threatening illness that has already caused five cases in the U.S. of babies born with microcephaly, with more to come.
Such are the “core principles” of the Republican party.