House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan released Monday a Republican critique of the War on Poverty begun by President Lyndon B. Johnson 50 years ago, in an election-year counterpunch to the Democratic Party’s claim that it can better provide for the most vulnerable Americans.
Ryan’s report says that federal healthcare, nutrition and education programs have failed to adequately address the country’s poverty rate, which it states has only fallen 2.3 percentage points—from 17.3 percent to 15 percent—since 1965.
The report documents what it says are a multitude of overlapping federal programs on food aid, housing and education, with $799 billion spent on a total of 92 separate federal anti-poverty programs. It states that Medicaid, which was expanded under the President’s new healthcare law, has “little effect on patients’ health” and “increases use of the emergency room inappropriately.” The education program Head Start, an Obama Administration priority, “does not improve student outcomes,” it says, and is “vulnerable to fraud.”
The document also hits at food stamps, which are now claimed by over 47 million Americans at a cost of nearly $80 billion. The Ryan report states that food stamps administered by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have only a “modest effect on poverty” and “discourages work” among female-headed households and married men.
The document does not suggest concrete solutions, although it puts forward broad outlines for reform. On education, for example, the report cites an academic study suggesting a “consolidated, well-funded system would be better” than the current slate of early-care and education programs. The report also praised the Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax credit for lower income workers.
Ryan’s aides said the report was never intended to be a policy blueprint. “The purpose of this report is to inform the public debate,” says a Ryan aide. “It challenges critics of reform to defend the status quo—to go beyond mere intentions and focus on results. I would expect Paul Ryan to have more to say in this area in the year ahead.” Speaker of the House John Boehner said Thursday that he expects Ryan to produce a complete, balanced budget this year, which may include reforms to anti-poverty programs.
Democrats have had ample time to prepare for a Republican pivot towards poverty. Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have all given major addresses on the subject in the past few months. “If past is prologue, this report is simply laying the groundwork to slash social safety-net programs,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking Democratic member on the House Budget Committee, in a statement. “I hope this time is different, but I fear it won’t be—this one-sided report was put together without any effort to reach across the aisle.”
You can read the full report here.