Ryan's "Better Way" Poverty Plan Is Based On Myths From Right-Wing Media

››› ››› ALEX MORASH

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and the Republican-led Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility released the GOP’s latest policy plan to cut government anti-poverty assistance programs. Many of the arguments in favor of Ryan’s proposed reforms are based on easily debunked right-wing media myths and poor-shaming. Ryan’s rhetoric in this poverty “reform” agenda -- titled “A Better Way to Fight Poverty” -- is gentler than in his previous policy proposals. But his plans are still based on myths, and his solutions once again are focused on gutting vital programs designed to assist Americans struggling to make ends meet and families in need.

Myth: The War On Poverty Was A Failure

Myth: “Welfare Cliff” Traps Americans In Poverty

Myth: Welfare Recipients Do Not Work Enough

Myth: Marriage Will Solve Poverty

Ryan Proposes “A Better Way” To Fight Poverty, But His Plan Would Cut The Social Safety Net

ThinkProgress: Ryan Announces Plan With “Stated Agenda” To Cut The Social Safety Net. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) announced his so-called anti-poverty plan, titled “A Better Way to Fight Poverty.” ThinkProgress reported that Ryan “has become the leading voice in Republican lawmakers’ crusade against welfare programs,” and that his current proposal is “fixated on the idea that people are abusing benefits.” The plan aims to cut benefit programs and to increase work requirements for recipients:

Ryan delivered remarks about the plan, entitled A Better Way, at a drug rehab center in Anacostia, an impoverished and heavily black neighborhood of Washington, D.C., as part of a broader rollout of House Republican priorities this week.

Ryan has become the leading voice in Republican lawmakers’ crusade against welfare programs. In the past, he’s blamed poverty on a “culture problem” in “inner cities,” where he says black men are “not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” He has also argued that marriage is the cure for poverty, not government programs, and refused to allow any actual poor people testify at his hearings on poverty. He seemed to back away from some of the more racially loaded rhetoric in March, saying he was wrong to refer to people stuck in poverty as “takers.”

Despite the change of heart about his rhetoric, Ryan is apparently sticking to his guns on policy. Ryan’s previous poverty plans have targeted the federal safety net, and the new proposal seems just as fixated on the idea that people are abusing benefits. The proposal asserts that “for low-income families, it may not always pay to work,” echoing a longtime conservative theory that poor people choose not to get jobs because it’s more lucrative to rely on government benefits.

Consistent with that philosophy, the plan includes a bevy of policies designed to make it much harder for people in need to access federal programs: tougher work requirements for food stamps, housing aid, or cash welfare; eliminating benefits conservatives believe are making improper payments; cutting Social Security; eliminating funding for early childhood education lifeline Head Start; sealing off tax credits from some low-income families; and further allowing states to cut certain programs as they see fit. [ThinkProgress, 6/7/16]

Ryan’s Plan Echos Right-Wing Media Myths And Poor-Shaming

Myth: The War On Poverty Was A Failure

Ryan Plan Claims War On Poverty Has Left The Poverty Rate Today “No Better Than It Was In 1966.” Ryan asserts that despite the federal government’s push to assist the poor since the 1960s with the War on Poverty, the country has spent trillions of dollars and poverty is unchanged. Ryan bases his plan on the idea that the War on Poverty does not work. From “A Better Way to Fight Poverty” (emphasis added; citations omitted):

The American Dream is the idea that, no matter who you are or where you come from, if you work hard and give it your all, you will succeed. But for too many people today, that’s simply not true. Thirty-four percent of Americans raised in the bottom fifth of the income scale are still stuck there as adults. In fact, the rates at which people move up the ladder of opportunity have stayed remarkably stable over the past several generations. In that sense, Americans are no better off today than they were before the War on Poverty began in 1964.

[...]

Today, 13 federal agencies run more than 80 federal programs that provide food, housing, health care, job training, education, energy assistance, and cash to low-income Americans. Almost one-third of the U.S. population receives benefits from at least one welfare program. But even though the federal government has spent trillions of taxpayer dollars on these programs over the past five decades, the official poverty rate in 2014 (14.8%) was no better than it was in 1966 (14.7%), when many of these programs started. In other words, though these programs have helped people cope with poverty, they haven’t helped people get out of poverty. As President Ronald Reagan once summed it up, “The Federal Government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” [Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility, “A Better Way to Fight Poverty,” 6/7/16]

Right-Wing Media Have Pushed The Myth Of The Failed War On Poverty For Years

Fox's Martha MacCallum: Government Programs Barely Make "A Dent In Poverty." Previewing the release of President Obama's budget on the March 4, 2014, edition of Fox's America's Newsroom, co-host Martha MacCallum claimed that while the president's plan called for increased spending on programs to fight poverty, "budget hawks say that the programs don't work, barely making a dent in poverty when you really look at the numbers over the past 50 years." MacCallum then turned to Fox's chief congressional correspondent, Mike Emanuel, to hype Rep. Ryan's claims about the alleged failure of government programs to reduce poverty and help low-income Americans. Earlier that morning, during an interview with The Hill’s Bob Cusack, co-host Bill Hemmer uncritically promoted Ryan’s 2014 report on poverty, asking “what has America gotten” for “throw[ing] a lot of money at these programs for decades.” [Fox News, America's Newsroom, 3/4/14, 3/4/14]

Fox Panel Agrees Successful Anti-Poverty Programs Have Failed. During a panel discussion promoting proposed Republican cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Fox’s Alisyn Camerota, Fox Business contributor Charles Payne, and Wall Street Journal editorial board member Mary Kissel misleadingly claimed that anti-poverty programs cannot alleviate poverty. The September 19, 2013, segment was replete with misleading or false claims that SNAP does not lift people out of poverty, that poverty rates have remained the same since the 1960s, and that the programs create more poverty by discouraging work. [Fox News, America Live, 9/19/13]

Fact: The War On Poverty Has Assisted Millions Of Americans

Jared Bernstein: Federal Programs Are Working, But Growing Economic Inequality Strains The System. Economist Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) wrote about the success of the War on Poverty in a January 6, 2014, blog post for The New York Times in recognition of the effort’s 50th anniversary. Bernstein reported that 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. He also noted that growing economic inequality -- among other factors -- was increasing the strain on the programs and causing poverty rates to remain artificially high, making them seem less effective than they really are. But despite these pressures, official poverty rates have fallen thanks to War on Poverty programs, and more precise alternative measures showed that poverty rates had been nearly cut in half since the mid-1960s, before spiking again during the Great Recession:

[The New York Times, 1/6/14]

CBPP: Ryan’s 2014 Poverty Report "Replete With Misleading" Evidence Used "To Portray Safety Net In A Negative Light." In a detailed March 4, 2014, analysis of Ryan’s initial poverty report, CBPP vice president Sharon Parrott noted that the report understated the effect that anti-poverty programs have on reducing poverty and ignored research that counters its assertions:

Though it purports to be a balanced, evidence-based review of the safety net, it falls far short of that standard. It's replete with misleading and selective presentations of data and research, which it uses to portray the safety net in a negative light. It also omits key research and data that point in more positive directions. [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 3/4/14]

Myth: A “Welfare Cliff” Traps Americans In Poverty

Ryan Plan Claims The Poor Are Trapped In Poverty Because Of The “Welfare Cliff.” The Ryan poverty plan references the right-wing media myth of a so-called “welfare cliff,” which assumes that some beneficiaries of anti-poverty programs refuse professional advancement opportunities because increased take-home pay would actually reduce their net income by decreasing their benefits. Ryan also alleges that the current system encourages the poor not to work while encouraging state and local governments to keep people in poverty so they receive more federal money to support them (emphasis added):

Under our current system, states and other service providers often lose money when someone leaves welfare for work. In other words, they’re better off if the recipient fails rather than succeeds. In fact, it may not even make financial sense for someone on welfare to work more because they end up losing so many benefits.

[...]

For low-income families, it may not always pay to work. Low-income families often receive many types of welfare and tax benefits, such as assistance with food, housing, and day-care costs; help with medical costs; or cash payments to supplement earnings from work. As displayed in chart 7, because these benefits phase out as you move up in the income ladder—and people are often on multiple programs at the same time—many households end up losing almost as much money in expired benefits as they make in higher pay.

[...]

There is a “welfare cliff” because recipients don’t move up slowly, one dollar at time. Also, recipients are rarely on just one program, creating odd interactions from the stacking of programs on top of one another because they have never been coordinated. [Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility, “A Better Way to Fight Poverty,” 6/7/16]

The “Welfare Cliff” Is A Right-Wing Media Myth That Claims Assisting Those In Need Actually Hurts Them

Fox Correspondent Hyped Discredited "Welfare Cliff" To Claim Low-Income Workers Are Trapped In Poverty. Fox News correspondent Dan Springer claimed that many low-income workers in Seattle were gaming the system on the July 22 editions of Fox News' America's Newsroom, Happening Now, and Special Report, in the wake of the city's minimum wage increase. Springer claimed that low-income workers were working fewer hours at the new, higher pay rates 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 lacked 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." Fox News 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" on the June 24 edition of Fox & Friends. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 6/24/15]

Right-Wing Media Hype Flawed Study Claiming "The Current Welfare System ... Acts As A Disincentive For Work." The libertarian Cato Institute released a report titled "The Work Versus Welfare Trade-Off: 2013," on August 19, 2013, which promoted the misleading claim that the "current welfare system provides such a high level of benefits that it acts as a disincentive for work." Right-wing outlets such as Breitbart News, The Washington Examiner, and Fox News uncritically promoted the report, even though its methodology had been thoroughly debunked. [Media Matters, 8/19/13]

Fact: Assisting Families In Need Does Not Trap Americans In Poverty

NY Times’ Eduardo Porter Debunks Myth That Welfare "Will Just Encourage Bad Behavior." New York Times economic columnist Eduardo Porter debunked the persistent conservative myths that government anti-poverty relief programs, commonly referred to as "welfare," encourage laziness and waste among low-income Americans, and that cutting assistance to the poor actually reduces poverty. On October 20, Porter noted that so-called "welfare reform" in the 1990s, which supporters claimed would reduce poverty, had little effect on poverty rates in the United States. He also pointed to research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the World Bank that found "no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work" and that cash assistance is "not typically squandered" by recipients. Porter concluded that attempts to "reform" welfare programs were driven by myths and stereotypes, and caused low-income Americans to be worse off during the 2008-2009 recession than in previous economic downturns:

Few ideas are so deeply ingrained in the American popular imagination as the belief that government aid for poor people will just encourage bad behavior.

The proposition is particularly cherished on the conservative end of the spectrum, articulated with verve by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, who blamed welfare for everything from higher youth unemployment to increases in "illegitimacy."

[...]

Today, almost 20 years after Mr. Clinton signed a law that stopped the federal entitlement to cash assistance for low-income families with children, the argument has solidified into a core tenet influencing social policy not only in the United States but also around the world.

And yet, to a significant degree, it is wrong. Actual experience, from the richest country in the world to some of the poorest places on the planet, suggests that cash assistance can be of enormous help for the poor. And freeing them from what President Ronald Reagan memorably termed the "spider's web of dependency" -- also known as forcing the poor to swim or sink -- is not the cure-all for social ills its supporters claim.

[...]

When the Great Recession struck, many of the poorest Americans found there was no safety net for them. "Extreme poverty was more affected by the shock to the labor market than in prior experience," said Professor Hoynes at Berkeley.

Why is this debate still relevant today? The evidence has not caught up with the popular belief that welfare reform was a huge success. [The New York Times, 10/20/15]

CEA Report Debunks Paul Ryan's SNAP Criticism. NPR reported on December 29 that a Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) report 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. From NPR.org (emphasis added):

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]

Myth: Welfare Recipients Do Not Work Enough

Ryan Plan Claims Current Public Assistance System Does Not Encourage Recipients To Work. The Ryan plan claims recipients of public assistance do not work enough and that programs should make sure states are “held accountable” by creating stricter work requirements for recipients (emphasis added; citations omitted):

Work -- especially full-time work -- is the surest way to escape poverty. Many welfare programs provide benefits to alleviate the immediate effects of poverty, yet few provide low-income people the tools they need to get out of poverty. Our welfare system should encourage work-capable welfare recipients to work or prepare for work in exchange for benefits, and states should be held accountable for helping welfare recipients find jobs and stay employed.

As displayed in chart 3, of all working-age adults (18-64) who were in poverty in 2014, almost two in three were not working at all, and another 27 percent were working only part-time. On the other hand, in 2014, only 2.7 percent of full-time workers lived below the poverty level, compared with 32.3 percent of adults who do not work. Even part-time work makes a significant difference; only 17.5 percent of part-time workers lived below the poverty level. [Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility, “A Better Way to Fight Poverty,” 6/7/16]

Right-Wing Media Repeatedly Push For More Work Requirements And Spread Myth That Poor Americans Are All Jobless

Las Vegas Review-Journal: More States Should Replicate Maine's Program Requiring Adults To Fulfill Work Requirements For Food Assistance Benefits. A Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial from February 18 pushed for Nevada and other states to adopt food assistance programs that require adults to meet stricter work requirements -- something Maine implemented in 2015 under the direction of Republican Gov. Paul LePage. The Review-Journal called Maine’s work requirements “an outstanding step toward making sure those who need such aid get it, while also helping them get back to work.” [Las Vegas Review-Journal, 2/18/16]

Fox Hosts: Our Coverage Is "Honest," And Those Who Don't Wish To Be Poor Should Get A Job. A Fox & Friends panel including Fox Business host Stuart Varney expressed confusion over why President Obama criticized the network for slanted coverage of poverty on May 13, 2015. Varney claimed Fox News was simply "an honest messenger," and co-host Steve Doocy agreed, saying that if Americans struggling with poverty "don't want to be poor," they should just get a job. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 5/13/15]

Fox's Poster Boy For Food Stamp Recipients Is A "Blissfully Jobless California Surfer." Fox News’ deceptive 2013 special "The Great Food Stamp Binge" promoted a so-called "blissfully jobless California surfer," Jason Greenslate, as the face of SNAP and “food stamps” more generally. Although Greenslate bears no resemblance to the overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients, many of whom are elderly, children, disabled, or rely on the program for a short time while looking for work, the network nevertheless shamefully featured him in an attempt to mischaracterize beneficiaries as freeloaders. [Media Matters, 8/9/13]

Facts: Many Public Assistance Programs Have Work Requirements, And Harsher Requirements Will Hurt Those In Need

CBPP: Work Requirements Typically Affect “Unemployed Childless Individuals” Who Are Already “Very Poor.” According to a CBPP report from January 21, many able-bodied adults without dependents affected by reinstated SNAP work requirements have an average income of "about $2,000 per year for a household of one in 2015," which is significantly lower than that of the average SNAP recipient (emphasis added):

Unemployed, nondisabled childless adults on SNAP tend to be very poor. USDA data show that while these individuals participate in SNAP their gross income averages 17 percent of the poverty line -- about $2,000 per year for a household of one in 2015 -- compared to gross income of 57.8 percent of the poverty line for the average SNAP household overall. Over 80 percent of the people subject to the three-month limit live in households with incomes below half of the poverty line (see Figure 3). Some 97 percent live in households below 100 percent of the poverty line.

[...]

Other kinds of assistance won't replace the lost SNAP benefits. SNAP is the only benefit available to most unemployed workers without children. All but a few states have eliminated their state-run cash assistance programs for poor childless adults (except, in some states, for people with a disability). Most unemployed workers on SNAP either don't qualify for unemployment insurance or any other federal or state cash or food assistance benefit or are long-term unemployed workers who have exhausted their unemployment benefits. [CBPP, 1/21/16; Media Matters, 1/26/16]

Governing: New Work Requirements Made Many Residents Ineligible Before They Could Find Jobs. Governing magazine reported that in states where work requirements were reinstated prior to 2016, there is evidence that barriers to employment -- such as lack of access to transportation and other variables not considered by SNAP -- have resulted in individuals being dropped from the program before finding work. [Governing, 1/12/16; Media Matters, 1/26/16]

NY Times: Reinstated Work Requirements Strain Food Banks As Demands For Their Services Grow Rapidly. The New York Times reported that states that have already reinstated work requirements for SNAP benefits have seen that charities focused on alleviating hunger -- such as food banks -- are being strained trying to fill the gap caused by thousands of people losing their food benefits. Kansas alone dropped 15,000 Americans from SNAP when that state’s work requirement waiver expired in December 2013, many of whom no longer have any access to food and nutrition assistance. [The New York Times, 4/11/15]

Myth: Marriage Will Solve Poverty

Ryan Plan Promotes Marriage As A Solution To Poverty. The Ryan plan asserts that marriage in and of itself creates a “success sequence” that reduces poverty. In part of its argument for marriage as a solution to poverty, the plan also alludes to the debunked “welfare cliff,” claiming that low-income individuals are discouraged from getting married because “their combined income from welfare and wages will almost certainly be lower” if they file to be program beneficiaries as a married couple. The plan did not acknowledge that married people are less likely to live in poverty because couples with stable incomes are more likely to get married than couples struggling with poverty (emphasis added):

Marriage is one component of what has been called the “success sequence”: three key achievements that are associated with low poverty rates. People who graduate high school, work full-time, and delay having children until they are married are much less likely to live in poverty. Only 2 percent of people who do these three things are in poverty, compared to almost 80 percent of people who have done none of them. Unfortunately, our current welfare system may be exacerbating this problem, as many means-tested welfare programs penalize marriage—because when low-income fathers and mothers marry, their combined income from welfare and wages will almost certainly be lower than the amount they had separately. [Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility, “A Better Way to Fight Poverty,” 6/7/16]

Media Push False Narrative That Marriage Solves Poverty

Wash. Post's Kathleen Parker: Marriage "Creates A Tiny Economy Fueled By A Magical Concoction Of Love." Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker argued that "being unmarried is one of the highest risk factors for poverty" in a January 15, 2014, column, adding that an increase in marriages "would help in the War on Poverty." [The Washington Post, 1/15/14]

Fox's Van Susteren: "Is Getting Hitched The Key To Getting Rich?" Fox News host Greta Van Susteren asked, "Is getting hitched the key to getting rich?" during a January 13, 2014, segment of her program focused on President Obama’s push to elevate discussions of poverty and inequality in the United States. She claimed that promoting marriage could be "a new strategy” that “could take the wind out of President Obama's recent war on income inequality," and welcomed former Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer onto the show to discuss his 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed. The op-ed criticized Obama's anti-poverty push, while advocating that policies addressing income inequality focus more on "marriage equality" than restructuring an unfair and unequal economy. [Fox News, On The Record, 1/13/14]

National Review’s Jonah Goldberg: Non-Economic Factors Like "Family Structure" Are More Effective Than Economic Policy In Preventing Income Inequality. National Review editor and Fox News contributor Jonah Goldberg claimed that non-economic issues like “family structure” can do more to combat poverty and income inequality than economic policy in a January 6, 2014, op-ed published by USA Today. Goldberg cited the story of Dasani Coates, a 12-year-old girl who was recently profiled in a New York Times article on child homelessness, blaming her poverty on the absence of her father and attacking the Times for citing an economic "system that tolerates so much economic inequality." [USA Today, 1/6/14]

Fact: Marriage Is Not A “Silver Bullet” To End Poverty

Shriver Report: Marriage Not A "Silver Bullet For Women's Economic Troubles." In partnership with the Center for American Progress (CAP), NBC's Maria Shriver released a report on January 12, 2014, on the economic realities women face in the United States. In the report, Ann O'Leary, contributing author and director of the Children and Families Program at Next Generation, pointed out that simply promoting marriage and family values will not solve poverty. Instead, O'Leary finds that economic policies and programs such as improving access to education and child care can do more than marriage to help decrease economic hardship for women (emphasis added):

Rather than promoting marriage as a silver bullet for women's economic troubles, the government should instead promote policies that allow women to complete their educations, to find stable and well-paying jobs, and to have the work supports necessary to meet their family needs, including child care and family- friendly workplace policies.

[...]

Single parents need education and good jobs to help their children thrive. Both sides should acknowledge that marriage, as an institution for raising children, is not always possible. Accepting that even a reversal in the trend of unmarried births will not end the need to support single-parent families, the government should provide greater educational opportunities and work supports to help single parents gain access to better jobs with more stable incomes and supports such as child care, paid family leave, and equal pay, as outlined in great detail in the Public Solutions chapter. Single mothers in our survey were more likely to regret leaving school (70 percent) than regret the timing or number of their children (47 percent). [The Shriver Report, 1/12/14]

Paul Krugman: Income Inequality Is Caused By A Lack Of Economic Opportunity, Not A "Collapse Of The Family." Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman argued in a New York Times column on January 8, 2014, that income inequality today is caused by a lack of economic opportunity, rather than right-wing media myths about social disintegration or the "collapse of the family":

These days crime is way down, so is teenage pregnancy, and so on; society did not collapse. What collapsed instead is economic opportunity. If progress against poverty has been disappointing over the past half century, the reason is not the decline of the family but the rise of extreme inequality. We're a much richer nation than we were in 1964, but little if any of that increased wealth has trickled down to workers in the bottom half of the income distribution. [The New York Times, 1/8/14]

Council On Contemporary Families: "Promoting Marriage" Is An "Ineffective Weapon In the War On Poverty." Ohio State University sociologist Kristi Williams, an expert with the Council on Contemporary Families, released a report on January 6, 2014, arguing that a "growing body of evidence" demonstrates that "promoting marriage is not the answer to the problems facing single mothers and their children." According to Williams, a major flaw in the argument that marriage can lead to more income equality is the "assumption that all marriages are equally beneficial.” [Council On Contemporary Families, 1/6/14]

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