Paul Ryan is one of conservatism’s most thoughtful policymakers, but I can’t help finding his new anti-poverty agenda disappointing. The 35 pages contain plenty of good ideas, but they place enormous faith in the federal technocracy to get things right where it has failed so many times before. Rather than a comprehensive strategy for improving America’s safety net and promoting economic opportunity, the document reads like a description of how the current safety net might work better if only we had better bureaucrats. The title of proposal #8 (out of 41) sums up the approach: “Pay More for the Good Stuff, Less for Everything Else.”
The Ryan agenda includes tweaks to a number of existing safety net programs: a re-emphasis on work requirements for welfare, a new work requirement for food stamps, more in-kind services and less cash for children on disability, portability and better alignment with other programs for housing assistance. These may all be worthwhile, but none serve to attack the core challenges of a tangled safety net that centralizes too much power in Washington, imposes one-size-fits-all solutions that fit no one, and gives too little emphasis to upward mobility; some might even make it worse.
For instance, while other parts of the plan emphasize the need to give state and local governments more flexibility, these core program reforms actually contain new federal mandates. Converting the cash disability benefit to in-kind services seems a recipe for more overlapping programs and unmet needs. If done “right,” these reforms might make things better. But if Congress and the federal bureaucracies made a habit of getting these kinds of things “right,” such reforms would not be necessary in the first place.
This problem is compounded in the overwhelming number of process-oriented recommendations. Four proposals entail some combination of reducing “Duplication” (#10) and “Redundancy” (#20) while increasing “Coordination” (#20), “Transparency” (#27), “Accountability” (#27) and “Flexibility” (#35). At least nine focus on “Evidence” (#11, #12), “Metrics” (#13), “Evaluat[ion]” (#14), “Data” (#15, #17), “Technology” (#18), “Research” (#19), and “Standards” (#34). Those are all good things. But the problem with the federal safety net is not that no one has ever thought of them, it is that the poorly equipped federal bureaucracy cannot achieve them.
Meanwhile, the agenda ignores the most powerful levers for genuine reform. It makes literally no mention of Medicaid (beyond a reference to a chart), which has dominated expansions of the safety net for decades, now consumes the majority of all safety-net spending, and yet is repeatedly shown to be among the federal government’s least effective programs. As I explained in an op-ed today, and in a longer report last month, reallocating some of that money should be central to making the safety net work better.
The agenda also, strangely, seems to ignore the importance of making work more attractive. It sings the praises of the Earned Income Tax Credit, but never suggests expanding it or otherwise improving its structure (which Ryan has previously endorsed). As far as I can tell, the only incentive offered for prospective workers is kicking them off existing programs.
Lastly, the agenda does not genuinely empower state and local governments to take control, even as it presents such control as central to making the safety net work. It suggests waivers here and waivers there, all subject to approval by federal bureaucrats. Its promises of local empowerment are conditioned on compliance with the new Ryan agenda priorities and always contingent on “accountability” as evaluated in Washington. The approach brings to mind the parent who says he wants his child to pursue his dreams, as long as those dreams are to take over the family business. The point of devolving authority should not be to trick the states into doing more legwork on behalf of their federal overseers, it should be to acknowledge that the federal government should not be in charge and that other actors are better positioned to make decisions.
The conservative approach to fighting poverty should not be the liberal approach plus work requirements. If we believe that a fundamentally different model for government is most likely to succeed, our policy proposals should reflect it.