Paul Ryan wants to fight poverty by putting poor people on probation, for being poor

Apparently the country was due for another round of Paul Ryan’s “Message: I Care” tour

“Hey girl. I really do. Care, I mean. You can see it in my eyes as I’m blasting out these curls.”

…because yesterday he released his brand new idea for saving the poor: The Opportunity Grant®. The plan is to merge a whole lot of individual programs for the poor into one program that gives block grants to the states and allows state governments to determine how best to use them to benefit the wealthy help their own economically disadvantaged citizens:

Rep. Paul Ryan proposed a new plan Thursday to merge up to 11 anti-poverty programs into a single grant program for states that he said would allow more flexibility to help lift people out of poverty.

Programs that would be merged include food stamps, cash welfare, housing subsidies, and heating aid for the poor, among others.

The Wisconsin Republican and 2012 vice presidential nominee is a respected voice within his party. His new “Opportunity Grant” plan would impose work or job training requirements on aid recipients and require states that choose to participate to set up at least two service providers, a move he says would encourage partnerships with locally-based nonprofits and community groups that may better know the needs of their communities.

Ryan, who has traveled the country in the past year visiting with the poor and with those who help them, said current anti-poverty programs are “fragmented and formulaic” and that his new grant program would allow greater collaboration within communities to help lift people out of poverty.

“The idea would be to let states try different ways of providing aid and then to test the results — in short, more flexibility in exchange for more accountability,” Ryan said in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “Get rid of these bureaucratic formulas. Put the emphasis on results.”

This checks off all the “compassionate conservative” boxes: “See, we do so care about the poor, it’s just that we don’t think these big federal government programs really help them, and plus we need to make sure that nobody is cheating the system.” Ezra Klein thinks this is a really great start toward…something, and joins in one of the DC media’s favorite pastimes, staring into Paul Ryan’s baby blues and telling us What’s Really in His Soul. Paul Ryan is really (“at heart,” Klein writes, lest you doubt the “what’s really in Ryan’s soul” bit) a reformer, not a cutter, of government programs, and all those times he proposed budgets that would literally cut everything the government does apart from entitlements and defense by 75% were just, you know, flights of fancy. Plus the budgets had to satisfy everybody (even the crazies in my own party is the unspoken subtext here, which is practically a mating call for the the Technocratic Center-Left DC Wonk), but these poverty reforms are the Real, Authentic Paul Ryan in action. Totes swoonworthy, amirite? There must have been hundreds of cold showers happening all over Washington yesterday after Ryan’s big unveiling.

Klein seems particularly pleased that this plan represents a “sharp break with [Ryan’s] budgets,” in the sense that where Ryan’s budgets wanted to eliminate a whole bunch of anti-poverty programs to fund a big tax cut for business and the wealthy, this plan wants to eliminate a whole bunch of anti-poverty programs to fund a single anti-poverty program whose purpose is just to write checks to states. This is swell, I guess, as long as state governments actually use the money to help alleviate poverty, and as long as that single anti-poverty program isn’t itself cut down the road to fund a big tax cut for business and the wealthy. It’s a whole lot easier to sell voters on “I’m going to cut this big shapeless program that just writes checks so that the Koch brothers can finally catch a break” than it is to sell them on “I’m going to cut fucking food stamps to give rich people another tax cut.”

But sure, in a just universe where the Republican Party hadn’t officially adopted Plutocracy as a campaign platform in 1980 and where state governments could always be trusted to do right by their least fortunate citizens, this would probably be a good plan. Federal anti-poverty programs are a jumbled mess, they make people work a lot harder than they should have to work to get their benefits, they sometimes get incentives wrong, etc. Some innovation at the state level might really inspire needed reforms across the country. In a just universe. Ryan’s plan even has what might be a legitimately decent path toward needed criminal justice reforms buried under the block grant bit, so that’s something. On the other hand, block grants, even if they’re not cut, aren’t a guaranteed panacea, particularly when you’re combining a whole bunch of very different programs (say, nutrition assistance and housing) into one funding stream. What happens if food costs skyrocket, because, and this is totally hypothetical mind you, humanity destroys the entire planet’s goddamn ecosystem somehow? Would the block grants adjust to account for this? In fact most (all?) of these individual programs are already underfunded, so the block grants would be starting from a disadvantage.

The fragility of block grants is really only part of the problem with Ryan’s plan, though. The other part is how, even as he’s proposing to ease up on some kinds of criminal sentences, he wants to effectively treat the poor as though they were criminals. Annie Lowrey:

Let’s take that last point first. Ryan proposes asking poor families to work with a single “provider” — a government agency or approved nonprofit or for-profit group — to build and enact a life plan, in exchange for cash assistance. (He plans on consolidating the funding streams from food stamps, welfare, and housing-assistance programs.) Here are the relevant bullet points:

  • A contract outlining specific and measurable benchmarks for success
  • A timeline for meeting these benchmarks
  • Sanctions for breaking the terms of the contract
  • Incentives for exceeding the terms of the contract
  • Time limits for remaining on cash assistance

Oh goodness, let’s run through the ways that this is condescending and wrongheaded.

Yes, let’s. Because there’s a name for this kind of thing: “probation.” Despite the veneer of deep, “New Republican Reformer” concern for the poor, this is rooted in the same “‘poor’ equals ‘immoral and undeserving'” bullshit that’s dominated the right for over 30 years now. If you’re poor enough to require assistance, then you must obviously be too stupid to run your own life, unless you’re really the kind of immoral, untrustworthy wretch who would try to take advantage of the system. Yes, it must be one of those two things! Can’t think of any other reason why anybody would want to be poor, you know? I especially like the “sanctions for breaking the terms of the contract” part, because it reminds me of one of my favorite movie scenes:

“Child care too expensive? Fuck you, get a job.”
“Sick, or taking care of a sick loved one? Fuck you, get a job.”
“Don’t have enough education or need new training? Fuck you, get a job.”
Not enough jobs? Fuck you, get a job.”

Much like “No Child Left Behind,” the wisdom of taking money away from those who need it most is surely sound.

The thing is, simplifying the mess of federal anti-poverty programs could be made even easier than state block grants: just give poor people money. No, really, just give everybody a guaranteed basic income. Sure, you might have a few people blowing it on the Demon Weed and bottles of Thunderbird wine, but you know what? Amazingly, most people who are poor can still somehow manage to prioritize what little money they do have. I’m betting the vast majority of folks who started receiving direct payments from Uncle Sam would use the money on basic human needs, like food, and housing, and Thunderbird wine trying to get out of poverty. I meant “trying to get out of poverty.”

You know what makes me feel pretty confident about that? Because that’s what poor people in other countries with guaranteed minimum incomes have done, and while I know Americans Are Exceptional, I like to think we’re not exceptionally stupid.

Well, OK, admittedly there are going to be outliers.
Well, OK, admittedly there are going to be outliers.

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