It took only five hearings on the “Progress of the War on Poverty,” as well as multiple requests by the anti-poverty group Witnesses to Hunger, but House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has finally invited a person with direct experience to testify. Tianna Gaines-Turner, a mother of three who makes $10.20 an hour, knows what it is to experience poverty. At the hearing on July 9, Gaines-Turner explained to Chairman Ryan that between her low wages and those of her husband, who makes $8.50 an hour, as well as the cost of caring for her children’s health problems (two suffer from epilepsy and all three suffer from asthma), her family struggles to make ends meet. As a result, Gaines-Turner and her family have been homeless in the past and have had to make tough decisions like choosing to skip meals for themselves to provide food for their children. Gaines-Turner’s story, however, is unlikely to affect Ryan’s understanding of poverty. Despite recent efforts to position himself as the right’s anti-poverty crusader, including embarking on a “listening tour,” Ryan repeatedly has demonstrated, in the form of budget documents, hearings, reports, and speeches, that his real priority is to further advantage the already-rich. The most recent and revealing example of this distorted agenda is Ryan’s budget resolution for FY 2015.
Ryan’s budget plan is called the “Path to Prosperity,” but don’t be fooled—it reads more like a “path to adversity.” Behind the rhetoric is more of the same—an austere plan that heavily favors the already-rich. A majority (69%) of Ryan’s proposed budget cuts are in programs for low-income people. And yet Ryan still finds room in the budget to carve out major tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% and major corporations. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ President Robert Greenstein has said, the budget is “an exercise in hypocrisy—claiming to boost opportunity and reduce poverty while flagrantly doing the reverse.”
Ryan says he is all about creating opportunity. And yet, he proposes gutting the very programs that create opportunities for people to escape poverty, including Pell Grants and job training. The irony isn’t lost on us—nor is the disproportionate impact this budget will have on low- and middle-income Americans. Here are some of the reasons we shouldn’t take Ryan’s words at face value and instead let the numbers speak for themselves:
1. The Ryan budget plan shreds the safety net. Some of the most important and effective safety net programs, including SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid, are on the chopping block in the Ryan plan. For example, Ryan proposes resurrecting draconian cuts to the SNAP program that the House passed in September and combining them with further steep cuts that would cut $137 billion, or 18% of the program, in total, over the next decade. The plan also block-grants the program starting in 2019, meaning states would receive a fixed sum each year. This is troubling for two reasons. First, SNAP works so well because of the cyclical nature of its spending, which increases to meet demand during times of recession and widespread economic hardship, and falls to pre-recession levels once economic conditions improve. The recovery from the last economic downturn is a testament to this; already, SNAP spending as a share of the economy has begun declining. By capping the program at a fixed amount that would be unable to rise to the level of increased need in a recession, the Ryan plan would undermine what makes the program so effective: its responsiveness to economic conditions. Second, the dramatic cuts in the Ryan plan would force states to choose whose benefits to cut even further—will it be working parents, poor children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, veterans, or other people struggling to make ends meet? SNAP benefits provide just $1.40 per meal—how much more does Chairman Ryan think he can cut?
Going hungry isn’t the only thing struggling families would have to worry about under the Ryan plan—another basic need, health care, would also be jeopardized. The Ryan budget saves nearly $2.7 trillion by slashing access to health care for low- and moderate-income people. It achieves these savings by repealing the parts of the Affordable Care Act that provide coverage for low- and moderate-income people and by converting Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program into block grants with significantly reduced funding. Under this plan, over 40 million low- and middle-income Americans, or 1 in 8 Americans, would become uninsured by 2024. Ryan’s plan fails to include any meaningful health insurance alternatives for the millions that will be left uninsured.
2. The Ryan budget plan cuts programs that create opportunities to escape poverty. For all Chairman Ryan talks about the importance of creating opportunity, his decision to cut Pell Grants by more than $125 billion over the next decade proves otherwise. Historically, Pell Grants, which enable low- and moderate-income students to afford college, have been instrumental in fostering opportunities to escape poverty through higher education. At a time when college tuition is skyrocketing to unprecedented levels, Ryan’s budget would freeze the maximum grant for 10 years, and would eliminate Pell Grants entirely for moderate-income students (who can currently receive modest assistance). As is, the maximum Pell Grant covers less than one-third of college expenses; at one time, it covered more than half of all college costs. Ryan’s budget thus makes it harder for low- and moderate-income students to attend college and break the cycle of poverty.
The plan also cuts funding for education and job training far below current levels.
3. The Ryan budget plan makes indiscriminate cuts to domestic programs. Ryan’s budget calls for at least $500 billion in cuts to mandatory programs other than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, Pell Grants, farm programs, civil service programs, and veterans’ benefits. A substantial share of spending in this category is for low-income programs, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, the low-income component of the Child Tax Credit, school lunch and other child nutrition programs, and Supplemental Security Income, which helps extremely poor people who are elderly or have serious disabilities.
4. It’s a “balanced” budget that only helps the rich. Ryan calls his budget a pathway to prosperity. What’s hiding behind the misleading rhetoric, however, is more of the same: top-down policies that fail our economy and disproportionately burden our nation’s low- and middle-income working families. In particular, Ryan wants to cut the top individual tax rate and the top corporate income tax rate to 25% and eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, on top of repealing the Affordable Care Act’s revenue-raising provisions. Together, these tax cuts for the wealthy would cost about $5.7 trillion over 10 years, while cuts to crucial programs for low- and moderate-income people would total $5.2 trillion. And yet, the budget assumes a revenue-neutral outcome—even though the plan fails to specify a single tax loophole to narrow or close in order to make up the difference in revenue losses.
The greatest problem with the Ryan budget is that it sprints to get the budget balanced in an extremely short amount of time (just 10 years), and does it by making massive cuts that disproportionately affect low-income people. Rather than looking for new ways to raise revenues, Ryan has chosen the easy way out. This strategy largely ignores any short- and long-term economic consequences. Moreover, it ignores the fact that the proposed cuts will result in large increases in poverty and in the number of people that are uninsured. As a result, Ryan’s plan provides prosperity only for the wealthy.
Chairman Ryan can talk a good game about poverty and the lack of upward mobility. In fact, Ryan is scheduled to speak about poverty (and likely elaborate on his proposed policy reforms) this Thursday, July 24, at the American Enterprise Institute. But we do not take him seriously because of what he is actually proposing to do. Numbers, such as those in his recently-passed budget resolution for FY 2015, make it harder to obscure the truth: that poverty and those suffering from it are not Ryan’s real priority.
The author thanks Kali Grant, Economic Justice and Opportunity VISTA, for her extensive work on this blog.