Paul Ryan’s failed attempt to refocus GOP attitude on poverty highlights larger problems

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Paul Ryan. Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons licensed.

By Maura Hallisy
@MauraHallisey
March 8, 2014

You only have to look so far as Paul Ryan’s completely fabricated CPAC speech about a boy and his school lunch or Ted Cruz’s fear-mongering tirade’s against food stamp excess to realize the Republican Party has a poverty problem. Much like the party’s well-reported problems with women and diversity, the issue for Republican Party leaders belies their arguable inability to create a platform, both in policy and personality, that includes those of lower socio-economic classes. Those failures continue this week, as Wisconsin Representative and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan attempted to refocus the party’s attitude towards issues of poverty.

A few days ago, Ryan released a report by the House Budget Committee Majority Staff entitled “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later.” The report, at 204 pages in length, critiques federal anti-poverty programs in terms of efficacy and spending. Appropriate to its to its title, the report begins with a quote from President Johnson: “We have declared unconditional war on poverty. Our objective is total victory…I believe that 30 years from now Americans will look back upon these 1960s as the time of the great American Breakthrough….toward the victory of prosperity over poverty.”

With this statement as a lead in, the report runs through a detailed examination of social programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid, amongst others, noting both their current status and historical origins. The thesis of the piece is that increased complexity and inefficiency have created a social safety net that does not lift individuals out of poverty, but rather holds them there in a government created “poverty trap.”

This claim is founded upon the notion that as individuals make more money they lose benefits, resulting in “high implicit marginal tax rates” and thus an incentive to remain dependent on public services. While theoretically this thesis could be correct, academics and economists — several of whom were cited in the report — noted inaccurate representations of research and a failure to document the nation’s progress regarding anti-poverty measures.

So, as Ryan attempts to rebrand conservative rhetoric towards poverty, it seems as if his report is nothing more than the same-old, same-old; namely, continued criticism towards government anti-poverty programs and subsequent calls to cut those programs. And then there’s the refurbishing of the myth of the social safety-hammock that traps and pacifies the poor. These sentiments are apparent in Ryan’s recent CPAC speech, in which he suggests through a story about a boy on a school lunch program that families on government assistance do not care about their children (it’s worth noting that the story was a complete fabrication).

Yet while claims of being “anti-poor” continue to fall squarely on the shoulders of Republicans, this type of rhetoric is indicative of larger American apathy towards poverty discourse.

In the 50 years since President Johnson proclaimed the start of the War on Poverty, rates of those living under the poverty line have declined, but so has public attention. And while 15 percent of the U.S. (about 50 million people) lives in poverty, this is an issue that demands a national movement and dialogue. Yet, through the neo-liberal years of President Ronald Reagan, to welfare reform under President Bill Clinton, discussions of poverty in the public sphere have all but completely dissipated, leaving us with fractured reports like Ryan’s or a president who has just begun to discuss economic inequality six years into his presidency.

Whereas issues like marriage equality and gun control have seized public consciousness, poverty has failed to be marketed in such a way that demands national focus. Even Occupy Wall Street, a movement built on economic populism, left voices of the poor distant and dejected. So while critiques of Ryan’s report and government policy programs are warranted, they need to be leveraged with a concrete call for more, because if we want to achieve “total victory” we need total attention.

Maura HalliseyMaura Hallisey is a 2013 graduate of Connecticut College where she studied Film Studies, Sociology, and Public Policy, with a concentration of gender in the media.  She currently works at a history museum in Hartford, CT and is a fanatic of running, biking and sharks.       

 

 

 

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