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What Paul Ryan Got Wrong — and Right — on Poverty

Photo from USDA

Last week, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin revealed a new plan to address the growing numbers of Americans living in poverty.  In 2012, 15 percent of Americans, or about 46.5 million people, were living poverty and the percentage of children was even higher at about 20 percent.  In Nebraska, there are over 80,000 kids living below the poverty line.

One element of Congressman Ryan’s plan would consolidate funding for all of our anti-poverty programs into an “Opportunity Grant” for states to hire caseworkers to work on addressing the individual needs of those living in poverty.

First, we have to say that we agree with Congressman Ryan about the need to revisit our collective approach to addressing poverty.  In spite of having safety net programs in place, we haven’t been able to successfully stem the growing numbers of those living in poverty. The fact that the statistics aren’t going in the right direction suggests the need to examine all of our current tools for poverty alleviation.  What are we doing that is working?  What can we do better?

The biggest problem with Congressman Ryan’s approach is that it treats poverty as an individual problem and not a systemic one.  We know that there are policies and systems that create barriers to opportunity, and this is especially true for people of color.  We need to ask broader questions of these systems and policies.   Is our educational system effective at putting all our children on a path to high paying jobs?  Do low-income workers have adequate access to work supports, like child care, that help ensure they can remain employed?  Are there adequate protections in place to ensure that workers can balance the needs of work and family?  Do our safety net programs encourage longer time financial stability while meeting short term needs?

We are also concerned that Congressman Ryan’s plan would essentially throw out all of our existing programs without evaluating what works and what does not.  This would be a huge missed opportunity to learn what we can do better in the future.  Another significant problem with the plan is  that it restructures funding for poverty alleviation programs into a block grant, which renders these programs unable to respond to economic changes like most of our current anti-poverty programs are intended to.

One promising element of the plan is that it would expand on the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), widely considered to be one of the most effective anti-poverty tools we have available.  The EITC lifted10 million Americans, half of whom were children, out of poverty in 2012.

Overall, we appreciate Congressman Ryan’s willingness to discuss the issue of poverty and what we can do about it.   It is an issue that is not being given nearly enough attention by policymakers and we hope that this proposal will spur discussion on the need to do more on the federal level to address poverty.





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