“What’s really at work here is the spirit of the Lord,” would-be Vice President Paul Ryan said in a speech on poverty and upward mobility before conservative Ohioan churchgoers on Wednesday. “And there is no end to the good that it can inspire.”
But apparently there is an end—because it can’t inspire anyone on the Republican ticket to deliver an honest speech about poverty.
Sure, Ryan and Governor Romney repeatedly recite the number of people living in poverty or needing food stamps, using the statistics as a bludgeon against President Obama’s record. But beyond that? Bigfoot and Nessie got nothing on the myths these guys spin, and they are just about as fact-based.
“In this war on poverty, poverty is winning,” Ryan declared.
Except that poverty would be twice what it is today—nearly 30 percent—were it not for the safety net Ryan objects to.
No one disagrees with the notion that ideally people would need no assistance, and that good jobs with family-supporting wages and healthcare benefits would be available for all. But we live in a country where 50 percent of the jobs pay less than $34,000 a year, and 25 percent of jobs pay less than the poverty line for a family of four (less than $23,000 annually).
“We’re still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty,” Ryan insisted.
In fact it’s Ryan who is entirely focused on how much government spends on antipoverty measures—and wildly exaggerating those figures, at that (read on). Advocates, researchers and policymakers closely examine which programs are lifting people out of poverty, and which aren’t. For example, we can see how effective unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), food stamps (SNAP) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) have been in lifting millions of people above the poverty line. Just as we can see the ineffectiveness of cash assistance (TANF)—a block grant to states that Ryan touts as a model for what we should be doing with Medicaid and SNAP.
“President Clinton and the Congress recognized that it would be a good idea to give states more power to tailor welfare to the unique needs of their citizens,” said Ryan. “Mitt Romney and I want to apply this idea to other anti-poverty programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps.”
Ryan is alluding to the TANF program created under welfare reform in 1996, and he and the Republicans aren’t alone in misleading the public about its effectiveness—many Democrats are complicit as well.
The fact is that for every 100 families with children in poverty, only twenty-seven now receive cash assistance—down from sixty-eight prior to welfare reform. The benefit level in most states is below 30 percent of the poverty line—less than about $5,400 for a family of three. Further, with states given wide discretion over eligibility and time limits—or even using TANF block grants to plug state budget holes—we now have fifty different systems in place. That means in Wyoming, about 4 percent of the state’s poor families with children receive cash assistance. In Mississippi, it’s approximately 10 percent. But in Washington State, for every 100 families with children in poverty, nearly fifty receive cash assistance. Just looking at the varying cash assistance programs makes it clear that this assertion by Ryan simply isn’t true: “There’s a consensus in this country about our fundamental obligations to society’s most vulnerable. Those obligations are not what we’re debating in politics.”