NEW YORK — This week, the House Budget Committee, led by Republican ideas man Paul Ryan, published a 204-page report cataloging just about every conservative complaint about the federal government’s anti-poverty efforts. The report’s grand, familiar theory is that the American welfare state has grown too sprawling and complex, and when combined, its overlapping programs discourage the needy from working.
“There are nearly 100 programs at the federal level that are meant to help, but they have actually created a poverty trap,” Ryan told The Washington Post.
Some of the academics cited in Ryan’s report have complained that their work was misquoted or ripped out of context. (For instance, it ignores data about the first two years of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, which happened to be its most successful.) But in a very narrow sense, Ryan’s big idea is sort of, kind of correct. Because poor families lose government benefits as they climb up the income ladder, there are some select circumstances where it can stop making sense for them to work harder or longer hours. Earning an extra $1,000 by pulling extra shifts at McDonald’s might not be worth it, for instance, if it means saying goodbye to your Medicaid coverage.
It’s the sort of dilemma that policy types sometimes call a “poverty trap” or “welfare trap.” A 2012 report by the Congressional Budget Office, which Ryan cites, found that after taxes and benefit cuts, single parents living just above the poverty line would take home less than 20 cents of each additional dollar they made in wages above their current income, assuming they took full advantage of the programs available to them. At that point, many mothers and fathers might decide they’re better off spending more time parenting than working.
There’s Ryan’s amuse bouche of fact. But he’s using it as the enticement to a large and harmful fiction — that by giving the poor incentives not to work, we’re turning the entire “safety net into a hammock,” as he’s put it.