A Fresh Look at the War On Poverty

For many people, working hard at their jobs is not sufficient to provide for their family’s needs. Luckily for them, a “safety net” of government programs is in place to assist them. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the government agency that administers SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as food stamps), there were over 47 million individuals who benefited from the program in 2013. That number amounts to almost 15 percent of the country’s total population. The fact that so many people need government assistance would seem to be proof that it isn’t the fault of those who get the help as much as it is the by-product of a broken system.

Wisconsin Republican congressman and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan recently released what he termed a “conversation starter” on how to help those who live in poverty. Ryan, who is normally associated with GOP budgets not usually considered friendly to the disadvantaged, has been speaking about the United States’ poverty problem for a while. His plan, which doesn’t call for cutting spending per se, is eye-opening. One caveat, though: the plan is short on details, as it is Ryan’s stated intention to discuss the proposals with members of the Democratic Party before trying to legislate it into law. What the final proposal will look like is anyone’s guess, but what he has proposed so far is intriguing.

What Ryan points out (quite correctly) in his “discussion draft” is that “our current system of formulaic aid is focused on treating the symptoms of poverty.” If people need help with money for food, there is a program for that. But the program can only serve as a stop-gap; it does nothing to solve the underlying problem that caused that deficit.

Ryan proposes bundling money from 11 different government programs, including SNAP, and allowing states who would like to handle aid differently to apply to try. For the states that choose not to, nothing would change.

For those states, a sum equal to the amount spent on those 11 programs would be forwarded in a lump sum. Those states would be free to spend it without the constraints of the existing programs, but in ways they think will help the beneficiaries become more self-sufficient and ultimately get off public assistance.

Of course, as this is all funded with federal money, the states would have to submit their plans to the federal government for approval. In order to be approved, four criteria would need to be met.

First, the state would need to show how it will encourage self-sufficiency.

Second, there would need to be a work-related component (such as working or looking for work) to the developed plan.

Third, it would need to show how it provided more options (from non-governmental groups) for the beneficiaries.

Last, there should be a concrete measure of success according to which the program would ultimately be judged.

Ryan would also require that together with a case worker, the aid recipient set up a “life contract” with a goal, specific to that person’s own life. Goals can be things like getting a better job or accumulating savings. Reaching goals early would result in a cash bonus. That stands in stark contrast to the current system, which, Ryan says, “discourages work. Many federal programs are means-tested, so as families earn more money, they get less aid. Any system that concentrates on the most vulnerable will face this tension. But the current system exacerbates it by layering on program after program without ensuring any coordination among them.” Coordinating and adding incentives for success effectively solves this problem.

All of these are positive developments in the effort to help those who can’t make do on their own. But the most encouraging part about the idea is that Ryan is encouraging success-based plans that are state specific, which means that each state can tailor them to its own needs.

In 1932, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in a dissent from a court opinion that “a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” That is exactly what Ryan’s plan is encouraging here. If one state manages to come up with a program that succeeds, we can be sure that others will replicate it. If the first states that try have some measure of success, we can end up with a change for the better that ultimately benefits the entire nation and all its disadvantaged citizens. If they fail, they would just return to the current system.

After 50 years of waging the “war on poverty,” it’s refreshing to see some new ideas. Hopefully the ideas can lead to better results as well.