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Paul Ryan Is Pretty Sure Welfare Recipients Are Not Working Hard Enough

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE

Three months after apologizing for calling poor people “takers,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveiled his plan to make life harder for them.

Ryan delivered remarks about the plan, entitled A Better Way, at a drug rehab center in Anacostia, an impoverished and heavily black neighborhood of Washington, D.C., as part of a broader rollout of House Republican priorities this week.

Ryan has become the leading voice in Republican lawmakers’ crusade against welfare programs. In the past, he’s blamed poverty on a “culture problem” in “inner cities,” where he says black men are “not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” He has also argued that marriage is the cure for poverty, not government programs, and refused to allow any actual poor people testify at his hearings on poverty. He seemed to back away from some of the more racially loaded rhetoric in March, saying he was wrong to refer to people stuck in poverty as “takers.”

Despite the change of heart about his rhetoric, Ryan is apparently sticking to his guns on policy. Ryan’s previous poverty plans have targeted the federal safety net, and the new proposal seems just as fixated on the idea that people are abusing benefits. The proposal asserts that “for low-income families, it may not always pay to work,” echoing a longtime conservative theory that poor people choose not to get jobs because it’s more lucrative to rely on government benefits. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2016/05/12/3777615/trump-ryan-entitlements/Consistent with that philosophy, the plan includes a bevy of policies designed to make it much harder for people in need to access federal programs: tougher work requirements for food stamps, housing aid, or cash welfare; eliminating benefits conservatives believe are making improper payments; cutting Social Security; eliminating funding for early childhood education lifeline Head Start; sealing off tax credits from some low-income families; and further allowing states to cut certain programs as they see fit.

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The end game, judging by Ryan’s stated agenda over the years, is to cut trillions of dollars from a safety net that’s already borne heavy blows in the face of increased need in the post-financial crisis era.

The centerpiece of A Better Way is to “reward work” and get people off benefits and back to work as soon as possible. While that’s a generally popular idea, imposing stiffer work requirements on welfare recipients tends to backfire.

Under the current system, food stamp recipients are still obligated to accept any job offers that they may get. But Ryan wants to reinstate a system that forces people to spend 20 hours a week looking for work or lose their benefits by an arbitrary deadline. The work requirements Ryan espouses do little to further motivate people in desperate situations to find stable jobs; instead, they tend to punish people who are genuinely struggling to find jobs and education. Many types of education and job training don’t qualify under the requirements, and even unstable low-paying jobs can kick people off welfare before they’re actually self-sufficient, which then restarts the cycle of poverty.

Some red state governors have already charged ahead on Ryan’s anti-poverty experiments, with sometimes disastrous results. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) was one of the first governors to reinstate 20-hours-per-week work requirements for able-bodied adults with no children. Shortly after that decision, 15,000 Kansans suddenly dropped off the food stamp rolls. Brownback insisted those people relinquished their benefits of their own accord, even though the state’s economic outlook and poverty rate remained unchanged.