Paul Ryan's poverty plan is a backdoor way of getting rid of the safety net once and for all. Last week, Paul Ryan released a tentative proposal to alleviate poverty by handing over control of 11 key safety net programs such as food stamps, housing assistance, childcare, and head start over to cash-strapped states.
The biggest problem with Ryan's plan, besides its potential to become a bureaucratic nightmare, is that it was tried once before under President Bill Clinton in 1996 with welfare reform and was met with mixed results. Today, it is estimated there are 10 million more people living in poverty than two decades ago, a figure that is likely to rise if we adopt Ryan's proposal.
With welfare reform, state control did very little to reduce poverty or to a create pathway to prosperity for low-income families. In the beginning, welfare rolls plummeted to record lows and former TANF recipients entered the workforce, but these shifts were only temporary. Many women lacked the education or training to move up the career ladder or had other care taking demands that made it difficult for them to maintain full-time jobs. A weak economy aided by the 2007 recession and increased competition for jobs also forced many more into poverty and back onto the rolls.
With smaller welfare rolls, however, some states began to divert TANF funds to fill budget gaps. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, since welfare reform in 1996, some states have used the flexibility of the block grant to redirect TANF funds to supplant existing state spending, plug holes in state budgets or free up funds for purposes unrelated to low-income families or children.
At the onset of welfare reform, 70 percent of TANF funds were used for basic assistance to poor families. By 2011, only about 29 percent of TANF were used to provide assistance to needy families and nine states spent less than 15 percent. The same would happen under Representative Ryan's Plan.
To be sure, it would not happen right away, but it most definitely would over time. Like the welfare block grant, states would design and implement programs based on loose government guidelines and would eventually divert funds away from needy families.
Ryan is right about one thing: our social safety net is in broken and we must do something about it or risk our future. The answer, however, is not state-led control of safety net programs. We need both government and state led solutions to end poverty, reform our criminal legal and education systems, and to ensue that everyone has an equal shot at success and opportunity in America.