Last week, supposed conservative intellectual heavyweight Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Let Them Eat Block Grants) released an anti-poverty plan in an attempt to humanize both conservatism and himself (good luck with that). It’s essentially libertarian business school dweeb meets compassionate conservatism. Anyway, it’s already been noted that it would hurt the poor, especially during economic downturns–when they and the economy as a whole need all they help they can get. The block grants to states is a time-honored way to weaken federal programs and to allow states where they believe life starts at contraception and ends at Honduran to screw the needy. Jared Bernstein channels my Uncle Harry (“rich or poor, it’s always good to have money”) and notes that the poor are poor because they don’t earn enough. But this is the part of Ryan’s plan that floors me (boldface mine):
The underlying thesis is that those who are closest to actual poor people will be best able to figure out how to help them. But Ryan fails to take this idea to its end conclusion: that poor people themselves, being the closest to their own situations, are the most knowledgable about what they need to improve their lives. Instead, his proposal calls for low-income people to meet with providers to create a “customized life plan,” a contract that includes goals and benchmarks, as well as penalties for missing any steps.
In describing what this would look like, Ryan outlines the minimum requirements:
• A contract outlining specific and measurable benchmarks for success
• A timeline for meeting these benchmarks
• Sanctions for breaking the terms of the contract
• Incentives for exceeding the terms of the contract
• Time limits for remaining on cash assistance
There would be bonuses for people who meet their goals ahead of time, such as finding a job before the time allotted, although the bonus wouldn’t likely come in the form of cash but in something like a savings bond. But if they miss those goals — say, in the current American economy where there are more than two job seekers for every opening, they struggle to find a job in that time period — the poor person would face consequences, “most likely immediate sanctions and a reduction in benefits,” Ryan writes.
An entirely different approach would take out the middle man of the providers and let poor people decide for themselves how best to improve their lives. This could be done by simply giving money, without strings attached, to the poor.
Essentially, what Paul Ryan wants to do is create a government bureaucracy to monitor these ‘contracts’ (or, maybe monitor the Social Contract?). Conservatives have spent the last forty years railing against this very thing. Of course, people will disagree about whether they hit these ‘benchmarks’, so we’ll need to hire people to adjudicate that process. More ‘big government.’ It also opens people up to the predations and whims of ‘petty government bureaucrats.’ Maybe some will be lenient and kind, others might not. Seems like there are plenty of opportunities for abusing and preying on the needy–which already happens.
When you look at the two of the most successful anti-poverty programs, Social Security and SNAP, they don’t involve a lot of monitoring (SNAP does have some limits on what can be bought). They just disburse money to those who need it. Ryan’s plan isn’t liberalism, it’s liberalism as designed by a fucking moron who hasn’t been paying attention for the last three decades. This idiocy is not a bug, but a feature–it is intentional (boldface mine):
Here’s the thing. There’s nothing in the plan and there’s nothing in anything he’s said about it that even hints that he’s changed his mind about why the poor are poor—dependency on government aid has made them lazy—and how they need to get out of their hammocks and get to work or work harder if they are working and be more like…well, Paul Ryan….
There’s enough that’s not awful in Ryan’s new plan to give Ezra Klein the opportunity to amuse himself imagining how it could work to actually help some people besides millionaires who want their taxes cut if…if it was administered by people Paul Ryan and his masters in the Republican-controlled house would die before they’d let get their hands on it—that is, technocratically-minded liberals with a mild fondness for the memory of Franklin Roosevelt. Truer-hearted liberals with a real commitment to the memory of FDR are likely to see it as the con it is and toss it back to Ryan with a thanks but no thanks.
It’s just kinder, gentler flim-flammery.
Penalizing people for not being able to meet their contracts has another effect too; it pushes people to accept jobs that suck even worse than they’d hoped for in order not to lose benefits. That is, it’s another way of driving down wages and suppressing worker organizing (you probably lose benefits if you get fired, which you probably will if you complain too much).
In Oregon, the Department of Human Services is the largest department of state government (40% of the state’s expenditures). They handle all the social safety net functions: unemployment, disability, food stamps, medical, etc. Needless to say, DHS is a frequent targets of Republicans looking to reform government spending. The system can feel very inefficient as it is, but adding “social contracts” would pretty much grind it to a halt.
For example: You already have to be actively searching for work to qualify for food stamps. And regular (monthly?) meetings are required with a “plan coordinator” to review your progress and check your activities. This can be effective for some people, but it also chases qualified people away.
I’m assuming that the Feds won’t provide money for the additional people required to run the contracts part. So the state will cough up more money for personnel or cut somewhere else. Naturally, the Feds will be reluctant to just dump money into the existing system, so more money will have to be spent stateside to mold the existing programs into an acceptable conduit for the new federal program.
This sounds like the sort of phony plan that managers come up with after annual reviews of people they want to fire but have no justification for firing. Setting ethereal and I’ll-defined milestones.
Ryan wants to “manage out” the poor.
An increase in government bureaucrats? Not likely. This is a perfect opportunity to contract out to organizations with the proper perspectives on the poor–particularly the faith-based, giving them an infusion of funds and an grand opportunity for proselytizing.
@alwayscurious: “I’m assuming that the Feds won’t provide money for the additional people required to run the contracts part.” Ryan is proposing that the whole thing be financed by block grants. The federal government every years gives a chunk of money to the states, saying,”This is for your Social Safety Net Program. Spend it as you will.” So the money for the extra people has to come out of the total, which means higher overhead and less going to the intended recipients (ever noticed how conservative organizations, like super-PACs, seem to have amazingly high overhead? Rent mailing lists, hire consultants, large salaries for workers, but money for the stated purpose? Not so much). Of course the states are also going to divert some of the money to their own pet projects, like hiring people to monitor abortion clinics, or increase payment to the for-profit prison corporations (without monitoring conditions inside the prisons). This is the beauty of block grants, and why it’s the favored tactic. Of course most of the states aren’t going to hire enough “counselors,” and they’ll be paying peanuts, so case loads will be huge and “counselors” will not actually be able to spend any time with the people they are supposed to help. Like parole officers or teachers. And another benefit, every time there’s an economic downturn and more people need help, the states will be having budget problems and will fire more cops, firemen, teachers, and poverty “counselors.”