Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Man Of Bad Ideas Has Another One

It may be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Or it may be as Karoli of Crooks and Liars puts it, that "Robert Reich would know better than to call this a "serious proposal if it were actually Reich on that program. No, this was his evil twin Skippy..."

Robert Reich says he was "frankly very impressed" and Paul Ryan's proposal "deserves a careful look by Democrats"  It may be an evil twin, because otherwise we have to conclude it's the same Robert Reich who understands

simply having a job is no bulwark against poverty. In fact, across America the ranks of the working poor have been growing. Around one-fourth of all American workers are now in jobs paying below what a full-time, full-year worker needs in order to live above the federally defined poverty line for a family of four.

The Ryan plan would consolidate 11 federal anti-poverty programs into one program coordinated on a state-by-state basis. It also would expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, in part by eliminating other programs of the social safety net,such as The Social Service Block Grant, the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program, the Economic Development Administration, and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. 
More controversially than robbing Peter to pay Paul, each recipient of aid would sign a contract and 

each state will approve a list of certified providers that are held accountable for providing quality service and achieving results (such as moving people to work, out of poverty, and off of assistance).

Next, a person will select a provider, and the provider will conduct a comprehensive assessment of that person’s needs, abilities, and circumstances. 

Then, the two of them will develop a customized plan to address the recipient’s needs. The plan could take the form of a contract—with sanctions for failing and bonuses for exceeding expectations. The plan would offer financial assistance to address immediate needs, like food, clothing, child care, and housing. But it would also work on setting goals, learning skills, and developing a broader support system.

Slate's Jamelle Bouie, however recognizes 

the idea that life skills are necessary to climb out of poverty—that the poor are plagued by low income and bad habits—doesn’t jibe with the facts on the ground.

Mandatory life coaching makes sense if most poverty is persistent and generational. Even with federal assistance, adults with little-to-no market income—and little experience in the workforce—are at a long-term disadvantage and likely to pass those barriers on to their children. But poverty in America is fluid; depending on the season, the unstable nature of market work may force a period of personal retrenchment.

It's not surprising that the scheme hatched by the right-wing chairperson of the House Budget Committee is paternalistic, nor that it entails a major expansion of government bureaucracy, necessitated by the notions of a comprehensive assessment, customized plan, setting goals and "developing a broader social system."  But Ryan may be thinking long-term, strategizing to effect a radical reduction in assistance to the nation's increasingly large block of poor, and working-class, people. Max Sawicky explains

the common theme throughout the report is to convert Federal programs into block grants. A block grant is a fixed pot of money provided to a state or local government for broadly-defined purposes. Ryan’s report is at pains to assert that the conversion would not entail spending cuts. This could not be further from the truth.

The story goes back to the days of Richard Nixon. I told it here. I was not the first to figure out the deal. The short version is that a program or programs converted to a block grant is being set up to wither away. Block grants are designed through formulas to grow slowly or not at all, despite the likelihood that whatever the included programs were aimed at typically costs more to deal with every year. There are also two malignant political dynamics at work. One is that Congress doesn’t like to spend money without a say in what happens to the money. Block grants transfer control to state governments. They have the fun of spending the money, Congress has the fun of raising the taxes to pay for it. The other is that the more vague — “flexible” — the purposes of the grant, the less focused is its political support.

State officials are always happy to play this game because the money is front-loaded. In the initial years the grant is close to what they were getting before, and by the time the grant shrinks, they will be out of office anyway.

The transfer of program responsibility from the Federal government to the states is known as devolution. It is the standard way of attacking domestic spending for social purposes, going back to Richard Nixon’s dismantling of the original, more interesting War on Poverty launched by Lyndon Johnson.

Paul Ryan still believes most people are struggling because of their own faults, possibly their culture.  But this is a country whose largest employer (Wal-Mart) raked in $17 billion in profits two years ago while paying its typical worker, a sales associate, an average of $8.81 an hour, or approximately $18,300 per year. Or as Digby observes

Ryan wants to "help" the poor the same way conservative have always wanted to help them --- by giving them the "tough love" of making their lives even worse than they already are. If they want "help" they can go to a church and pray to their God and maybe they'll get a sandwich. 

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