Forget Afghanistan or Iraq—the United States’s longest war has been against poverty. Since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson, the “war on poverty” has raged on. But as we look at the outskirts of our communities, we still see the poor. There are still Americans who cannot afford a safe home or food. With Obama’s new initiative to battle inequality, The Washington Post reports that Congressman Paul Ryan has some different ideas:
“There are nearly 100 programs at the federal level that are meant to help, but they have actually created a poverty trap,” Ryan said in an interview. “There is no coordination with these programs, and new ones are frequently being added without much consideration to how they affect other programs. We’ve got to fix the situation, and this report is a first step toward significant reform.”
Ryan is referring to a report he and his staff have compiled titled “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later.” In the 200-plus page document, Ryan explores various welfare programs from inception to today and evaluates their effectiveness in helping the poor. According to the report, one of the largest problems with these programs is the way they incentivize poverty:
“Because these programs are means-tested — meaning that benefits decline as recipients make more money — poor families face very high implicit marginal tax rates,” the report says. “The federal government effectively discourages them from making more money.”
Instead of helping people rise out of poverty, the government incentivizes them to stay in it. Where the government touts the dollar amount that goes towards poor people, Ryan wants evidence that those dollars are actually changing lives:
“In visit after visit, I’ve learned that we’ve got to stop measuring success by how much we spend and start measuring success by how much we help,” he said. “That’s the debate we need to shift.”
Ryan’s efforts should be commended. Plenty of Republicans have decried government spending on welfare, but Ryan, as usual, has made the effort to compile data to back up his arguments. His desire to see people “helped” sounds very Democratic; the left loves to claim their mission is all about improving the lives of the poor. However, his intent to do this without excessive or ineffective spending is exactly what fiscal conservatives want to hear. If he can manage to find solutions that both aid the poor and cut costs, he just might be successful.
Ryan has yet to reveal his plans for how he will accomplish these goals. Is there ever a way to effectively aid the poor by means of government spending? Can a government be charitable? Or can Ryan at least find some middle ground where less funding supports more people?
Time will be the judge. Nonetheless, one thing is for certain: This is a war we cannot definitively win, for “the poor will always be with you.”