Paul Ryan Starts In on Welfare Reform

by Patrick Brennan

The House Budget Committee, which Paul Ryan will run until next year (this year’s budget will be the last produced by him in that role), released a withering, comprehensive report today on federal anti-poverty programs. As Robert Costa reports for the Washington Post, this is a prelude to his budget this year, and an extended effort to answer liberal talk about inequality with conservative solutions that emphasize opportunity for the poor.

So what’s in Ryan’s report, which runs 204 pages? Assessments of a lot of programs that you never even knew the federal government ran, for one. The Budget Committee document counts 92 distinct federal programs to help poor Americans (there are almost surely more), costing $799 billion in 2012:

Whether the sheer variety of these programs is a good or bad thing is debatable — 22 different programs to help low-income Americans get housing may sound ridiculous, but on the flip side, you probably wouldn’t want to consolidate all of them into one homogenous effort. (E.g., there’s probably virtue in having programs that try to tackle the supply of affordable housing and that try to help poor Americans afford what supply exists.)

One of the most valuable things Ryan’s document does is assemble the evidence about the success of each program: To take just a random example, it records that something called Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly, which has provided housing and support services for disabled Americans since 1959 (just elderly ones since 1990), seems to be a cost-effective alternative to having these people placed in nursing homes and billing Medicaid for that. In fact, the federal assessment they cite found that it costs just half of what Medicaid would spend. So while Medicaid can pay for institutionalizing disabled elderly, and we might not want to do away with that possibility in some circumstances, having an alternative can offer efficiencies rather than redundancies.

In many cases, of course, assessments by the federal government (which aren’t done nearly often enough and publicized enough, something Ryan ought to emphasize) and outside academics find that the program is ineffective: There are two pages on the lackluster effects of Head Start alone.

What Ryan wants to do about that isn’t yet clear — Costa’s report indicates that he wants sweeping fundamental reforms, not just cuts in appropriations to ineffective programs.Such ideas will apparently be a big part of Ryan’s budget, released later this month, and will be part of a longer-term effort. 

The president’s budget comes out tomorrow, and there are no rumors of significant changes to domestic entitlements or anti-poverty programs. One change we have seen in federal anti-poverty programs and domestic entitlements under the president’s five years of budgets: A lot of them have gotten much bigger. That’s in large part due to the bad economy, of course, which most would agree a deliberate policy choice by the president. But Ryan’s big deck of charts reminds us of one of the key elements of the stimulus package of 2009: Spending on a lot of the programs spiked in 2009 and 2010, before subsiding and resuming slow growth alongside the rest of the federal budget. The 2009 stimulus did include some new ideas in other areas — it didn’t change the way we spend money on the poor.