Why Progressives Should Give Paul Ryan's Anti-Poverty Plan a Chance

Created: 14 August, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
5 min read

Americans have long been presented with a false choice when it comes to social welfare. People can either expose themselves to the capriciousness of free markets and whimsical private “charity” or capitulate to faceless government bureaucracies that are largely unaccountable to the people they are allegedly serving.

Paternalistic neglect or maternalistic smothering, pick a fate. The losers in either case are the impoverished and genuine self-government. 

Ultimately, progressives have achieved what some conservatives could not: the national government is, today, hardly distinguishable from a large corporation (of the Comcast variety). It treats citizens like “valued customers”: little to no human interaction, redundant paperwork, hours spent listening to a phone machine, and ultimately no accountability.

The bureaucracies that run social programs are outfitted with congressional-approved mandates to create rules and policies internally. To a large extent, unelected bureaucrats have more power over people’s day-to-day lives than their elected representatives.

A lackluster consensus and two unappealing choices require nothing less than a dramatic, radical rethink.

Radical leftists have long been calling for social welfare to be liberated from both markets and the state. Karl Marx, for example, derided state welfare as half-hearted pittances for redressing the damage capitalism has inflicted on the working class.

Some anarchists take a similar line: social welfare should be democratized. In other words, it should be taken out of the clutches of state and private interests and put directly in the hands of self-governing communities.

Interestingly enough, Republican U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (WI-1) has proposed an anti-poverty plan that adopts, to a remarkable extent, radical principles (obviously with some exceptions).

Ryan’s plan is the product of a year of touring impoverished areas of the United States with Bob Woodson, who was a civil rights activist in the 1960s and 70s and founded the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Ryan described the principles of his plan when he introduced it two weeks ago at the American Enterprise Institute:

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“And what’s worse, looks at each person in isolation. It doesn’t see how people need to interact. The secret of our country’s success is collaboration: people working together, learning together, building together—of our own free will…Don’t force them. Empower them…Each person fits into a coherent whole: a community. So if the public and private sector work together, we can offer a more personalized, customized form of aid—one that recognizes both a person’s needs and their strengths, both the problem and the potential…there are different kinds of poverty. Unfortunately, this Washington one-size-fits all approach treats them as if they’re the same.”

Under his plan, states can voluntarily approach Congress with their own, tailored anti-poverty plan that must meet four conditions.

First, the plan must be directly targeted at people in need and cannot be siphoned off for unrelated projects. Second, the plan must have work incentives and specific plans for connecting people to jobs. Third, the state government cannot simply become a smaller central government and monopolize social welfare; it must make room for at least one other participant (local nonprofits, private philanthropic, etc.) to provide social welfare. Fourth, a neutral third party must be designated to track results and the progress of recipients.

If the proposed plan is approved, the equivalent dollar amount the state receives from up to 11 different national bureaucracies would be packaged into what Ryan calls "Opportunity Grants." Ryan promised that the grants would maintain safety-net spending at the same level as current law and that it “does not make judgments about the optimal levels of spending.”

Most of the progressive criticisms of the plan are, unfortunately, little more than unhinged regurgitations of preconceived notions about Ryan or willful mischaracterizations of aspects of his proposal.

However, there are some thoughtful ideas coming from progressives. For example, Shawn Fremstad, a senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, makes a strong case that Ryan’s plan should also include a minimum wage hike to $10.10 and peg it to inflation.

There has also been an interesting strain of progressives calling the plan smart but wrongheaded and “paternalistic,” which is odd coming from a group that is exceedingly comfortable with the maternalism of the national programs in place.

They bristle at the notion of supplying individuals with caseworkers, whom they derisively call “life coaches” in their critiques.

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Ryan should be faulted for repeatedly falling back on an old, debunked conservative trope that what the impoverished really need is motivation to work. The idea of having the impoverished “sign a contract” with benchmarks and penalize them for missing them is condescending and unhelpful.

Yet, some progressive pundits’ line of reasoning leads them down a well-worn path:

“The poor don’t need life coaches,” they argue. “The poor are not defective human beings that need guidance. They simply need money and a job that pays a living wage. Hey, you know what would be cheaper than all this? Cut everyone a check that provides a minimum income! Then peg it to inflation. Little administrative costs, and it eliminates the need for many welfare bureaucracies!” (see here and here)

It’s well-worn because Milton Friedman advocated that exact policy for most of his life. It’s called a negative income tax.

Before Friedman, Martin Luther King Jr. explicitly endorsed a guaranteed minimum income in his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, as the most effective approach to directly abolishing poverty. Perhaps Ryan would be swayed by such a proposal.

Nonetheless, the real merit of Ryan’s proposal are its principles: poverty is not a monolithic “other,” but rather has local idiosyncrasies that must be taken into account. Social welfare should be locally crafted and administered by communities in cooperation with local non-government organizations.

As he repeatedly said, Ryan is willing to reconsider the policy ideas (i.e. the opportunity grants, the “contracts,” etc.) if that means getting closer to realizing these principles. He has put in the time and patience to seriously studying poverty. Policymakers, particularly progressives, should respond in kind.

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