Fred’s Focus: Paul Ryan’s View on Poverty

Unlike most politicians, Speaker Paul Ryan does not ignore poverty but professes an interest in helping to solve this great American shame. He has visited low income areas and consulted with anti-poverty advocates. And of course, he has literally 100s of bright people ready to do his bidding, search out the facts,  and discover the depth of poverty.

Consequently, Ryan has made a few good decisions. He should be commended for his support of the Earned Income Tax and Child Tax Credits.

Sadly though, most of his recommendations are decades behind the times and would do more to harm low income Americans than to help them. Ryan declines the ability to have staff gather facts and deal with the realities of poor Americans. Rather, he prefers to operate from the invincible ignorance of his far right ideology.

Let us not forget the far right ideology tells us all we need to know about low income Americans.

Ryan argues that poor people should not get too much help because it would create a culture of dependency. In a 2014 interview with Meet the Press, Ryan stated, “The federal government’s approach has ended up maintaining poverty, managing poverty. In many ways, it has disincentivized people to going to work.”

He would take programs from the federal government and give the money in block grants to the states which would obviously do them more effectively by farming them out to the private sector. These actions stem from Ryan’s core belief that the federal war on poverty was a complete failure.

Advocates of the federal efforts to combat poverty note that measures of poverty rates discount the very programs being debated, thus distorting political debate. Recent studies show that taking government aid into account, poverty in America declined from 26% in 1967, at the height of the war in poverty, to 16% in 2012, but neither this fact nor the reality that America was thrown into economic chaos in 2008 by the wild speculations of the private sector seems to matter to Ryan. He knows what he knows.

He is so sure in his ideology that he thinks another way of helping the poor would be to revoke the Department of Labor (DOL) rules on the fiduciary obligation of money managers for retirement accounts they handle for elderly people. This rule simply says the managers have to put the interests of the retirees ahead of their own interests. Ryan thinks this deprives the retirees of the best advice of money managers- a fact that Slate’s Jordan Weissman noted “fighting as an obvious sop to a powerful industry. Trying to cloak it in the language of an anti-poverty effort is as sad as it is hilarious.” But what is not hilarious is the estimated $17 billion in fees money the DOL reports money managers took from retirees in self interest last year.

It is not hard to see Ryan’s main objective in his report. He wants the federal government out the business of helping the poor. Let the states, private sectors, and the churches deal with the poor.

Tragically, Ryan has no concept of the depth or extent of poverty in America. He presents ideas that nibble around serious issues, while tens of millions of Americans suffer real time consequences of failed policy.

Maybe Ryan does not know that there are some 47 million Americans living in poverty, or that 22% of them, 16 million, are children. This is a larger percent than any but one other nation of 34 major industrial nations.

Ryan argues that opportunity is more important than poverty or inequality. Yet he proposed major cuts in nutrition, health, and education programs for poor children when he was chair of the House Budget Committee. So… where was the opportunity? He did this even while proposing deeper than ever tax cuts for the ultra rich and for corporations. Was he then totally unaware that it was the very programs he wanted to cut that formed the basis for upward mobility in European nations? Did he take history? Did he care?

I could paint the picture of poverty all day. While the stock market has soared and executive salaries are now in the multiple millions, middle class Americans have not seen their wages increase for over 35 years. A recent survey concluded that some 47% of Americans could not obtain $400 in cash in case of an emergency.

You get the idea!

Here’s the good news: dealing with poverty can start with a simple idea. America needs jobs that pay a living wage.

But raising wages is not even a topic for discussion in our current congress and has not been for nearly a decade. Multiple bills for different wage increases sit without a vote, research suggesting widespread benefit remains unread, and the ground swell of Americans demanding a fair living wage remain unheard. After all, the Chamber of Commerce opposes raising the minimum wage. Case closed for Paul Ryan.

We could also alleviate poverty through direct money transfers to the poor. America has a model for this in the direct money transfers we give banks. At least 16 million elderly Americans are kept from poverty by the modest Social Security payments they receive. But Ryan and his lot want to cut and privatize Social Security– perhaps the most reliable anti-poverty approach in our history.

The fact that Paul Ryan is viewed by so many as a leading, perhaps the leading policy thinker in the Republican Party demonstrates clearly just how disastrous our policy discussions have become.


Patriotic Millionaire Fred Rotondaro has had a varied career that includes journalism, teaching, anti-poverty and civil rights work, and national association management. He was a senior fellow from 2003 to 2015 at the Center for American Progress where he concentrated on poverty and inequality. He has written extensively for academic and popular publications. He holds a PhD in American Studies from New York University, an honorary doctorate from Wheeling College, and is currently Chair of the Board of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

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