When Rep. Paul Ryan (R-MN) first spoke about his latest proposal to reduce poverty in America, many in the human services field were skeptical, but optimistic. It’s certainly time to engage in a national dialogue around creating and strengthening opportunities for families, and this new set of recommendations is an improvement over the draconian budgets he’s put forth in the past few years. After careful analysis, however, it is clear that the negatives may outweigh the positives. Download the analysis here.
Rep. Ryan states that he wants to use his proposal to support low-income populations as they work to get out of poverty, but the emphasis is on getting people off public assistance rather than creating lasting solutions. But getting people off assistance is not the same thing as lifting families and children out of poverty. Below is a brief outline of what Ryan’s proposal recommends and the possible consequences if they are adopted.
“Opportunity Grants” are not new, but a repackaging and consolidation of eleven human services programs into one block grant. On the surface this approach may look appealing, but in practice it is less desirable. There is evidence that block grants tend to shrink over time, a fact that is problematic when applied to programs like SNAP that is designed to respond rapidly to hunger in this country. A block grant system would limit states’ abilities to support children and families in times of crisis, because funding is capped at a set amount each year. It is also not a stretch to imagine that in times of crisis money could be disproportionately allocated to one area (say housing after a tornado) and leave another area (food assistance) underfunded, if block grants are implemented.
The emphasis that Ryan places on wraparound services is constructive. But his proposal robs Peter to pay Paul by taking funding for current programs such as CDBG, which currently provide many of the comprehensive services Rep. Paul talks about, and redirecting it to provide more services to some and less to others.
And, as LaDonna Pavetti notes, the issue is not as much about flexibility to provide wrap-around services as it is about having sufficient resources to meet the needs of Americans working to get out of poverty. “Today, just 25 of every 100 poor families receive TANF assistance, only 1 in 7 low-income children who qualify for help paying for child care receives it; and just 1 in 4 low-income households that qualify for help paying for housing get it.”
Two troubling aspects of Rep. Ryan’s proposal are an emphasis on “competition and collaboration” between government, nonprofits, and for-profit companies to provide services to low-income people. Rep. Ryan wants to increase the number of options people receiving services have—a human services marketplace. Additionally, he proposes that human services programs shift from measuring how many people receive assistance and/or the dollar amount of that support, to how many people are moved out of poverty.
As with block grants, on the surface these seem like good ideas. However, putting human services out to bid, with the requirement that contractors demonstrate how they will get people off of public assistance, risks undermining the states’ health and human services infrastructure. It also poses the risk of contractors pushing people off the rolls prematurely, without achieving the stated goal of moving them out of poverty.
Comprehensive wrap-around services that are funded by braiding federal funds from multiple programs and agencies is good policy. Ryan’s proposal, however, distorts those strategies to fit an ideology that would undo critical supports to our most vulnerable populations.
Expanding EITC can lift more people above the poverty line. However, the proposal expands EITC at the expense of other programs that benefit low-income people. Ryan’s implicit assertion is that EITC is sufficient to meet the needs of low-income workers. This assertion can be challenged with multiple data sets that
Again, funding block grants has been demonstrated to decline over time, making them a less than ideal vehicle for meeting basic human needs. Use of quality research and best practices, as identified by experts, should be consistently and adequately funded.
Administrative flexibility is a positive goal where it allows for the improvement of services and does not reduce impact. Existing block grants provide the flexibility Rep. Ryan suggests, but funding cuts over the past several years have further limited the ability of programs that were already underfunded to meet demand.
Simplifying the FAFSA and updating Pell grants could be beneficial to millions of students in the US, but changes need to be rooted in good public policy that enhances affordable access to higher education. Ryan’s proposal runs the risk of placing higher education even further out of reach for young people without significant financial resources.
Contrary to the implication here, there is not a glut of job-training programs in the market. In fact, there are not enough resources to meet the demand. Block granting and consolidating programs may serve to undermine and further reduce the number of spots available to people in need of workforce development, particularly those with unique challenges, such as out-of-school and out-of-work youth, people with disabilities, older adults, and veterans.
The criminal justice system is in need of reforms that focus on reducing recidivism and helping people re-enter the community and workforce, as Rep. Ryan proposes.
This area of Rep. Ryan’s proposal offers the potential to address issues that have plagued many Americans seeking work, such as veterans returning to find they are “unqualified” to do civilian jobs.
Creating a commission to review the use and integration of data to improve understanding and learning of how federal programs work may be beneficial. However, the creation and functioning of a commission should not be funded by removing funds from programs that serve low-income populations.