Paul Ryan has for some years been engaged in the difficult and thankless task of getting Republicans to talk about poverty, a subject for which Republican officeholders have long had relatively little enthusiasm. Ryan has been remarkably successful at that, and he now moves on from getting Republicans to talk about poverty to getting them to do something about it.
The Democrats are not interested in doing something but in undoing something, that being the remnants of the Clinton-era welfare reforms they resisted at the time and have sought to reverse ever since. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which established some fairly liberal work requirements for welfare recipients, put the Democrats into a permanently reactionary stance vis-à-vis welfare reform. In 2012, the Obama administration created a waiver program that undermined those work requirements.
Indeed, the main theme of his “Better Way” welfare-reform agenda, outlined in a draft document released on Tuesday, is linking the benefits to the pursuit of work and the skills that lead to work. This is sound policy: If the ultimate goal of our assistance programs is not to help individuals and families to a state of economic independence, then there is only one alternative: indefinite and perhaps lifelong dependency. It’s one or the other.
Some of what’s in Ryan’s proposal will be familiar from earlier efforts, including time limits on the receipt of food stamps and housing subsidies for adults who are able to work. The vast majority (about three-fourths) of able-bodied adults without dependents who are receiving welfare benefits do not work; the larger body of welfare recipients, those with dependents (who are exempted from TANF work requirements), work at low rates, too. The great necessity is moving these dependents toward work, and the reasoning here is straightforward: The poverty rate for people with full-time jobs is 2.7 percent; for those with part-time jobs, it is 17.5 percent; for those with no jobs, it is 32.3 percent. Two-thirds of the Americans in poverty do not work at all, and a quarter of them work only part-time.
Ryan’s blueprint considers other questions, such as the disincentives welfare might provide to marriage and stable family formation. It would be optimistic, though, to expect welfare policy to have more than a marginal effect on the broad, long-term, disastrous social changes that have led to the decline of marriage and the rise of out-of-wedlock births. But Ryan is right to consider these factors, even if there is little hope of reversing them through federal policy.
Ryan has delivered an intelligent vision in broad strokes. But policy is not made in broad strokes, and the nation is not governed in broad strokes.
A final but critically important aspect of the approach Ryan is outlining is the devolution of program design and implementation to state and local governments, which under his approach would enjoy broad discretion in experimentation — with successful experimentation being financially rewarded. Ours is a very large country and one that is heterogeneous in important ways not truly captured by our platitudinous notions of “diversity.” What works in eastern Oklahoma is quite likely to be different from what’s effective in Chicago or Los Angeles.
Ryan has delivered an intelligent vision in broad strokes. But policy is not made in broad strokes, and the nation is not governed in broad strokes. The particulars will matter a great deal, and conservatives will have to fight for them — and fight hard — against Democrats who are very heavily invested in dependency. While it is always nice to save a few bucks, this isn’t primarily a matter of the federal balance sheet: What we are after here isn’t only a balanced budget but human flourishing, with economic self-sufficiency being a general precondition of that. There is dignity and self-respect to be had from work and from self-sufficiency — and there is no real alternative except the purgatory of being reduced to a lifelong ward of the welfare state.
Even as the gaudy melodrama of the presidential election unfolds, there is necessary work to do, much of which must be done in Congress. Paul Ryan intends to be a transformational speaker, and this is the sort of transformation that Republicans should be working toward.