The other day, as I sat down with my coffee to look over the morning’s news, the following headline caught my eye, 71% of Americans Believe the Economy is ‘Rigged’. The poll, conducted by Marketplace and Edison Research, found that 71% of Americans believe the economy has been manipulated so that it favors some in society while leaving others at a decided disadvantage. Interestingly, the answer for this majority of Americans did not change whether they were black, white or Hispanic, nor whether they identified themselves as a Republican, Democrat or Independent. This poll caught my eye, partly because I count myself among the 71% of Americans who believe the economy is rigged, but also because I have been reading critiques of the contents of House Republicans’ recently released antipoverty plan, a 39 page document entitled “A Better Way”. Based on what I have read about the proposals in this document, I would argue the plan presents a perfect example of why so many Americans believe the economy is rigged.
When I first heard the House GOP had issued an antipoverty plan I was curious about what it proposed. I was optimistic as a result of Paul Ryan’s apology for calling poor people “takers”, which he issued in March. In the past Speaker Ryan has referred to poverty as “culture problem” and viewed those living in poverty as having a moral failing. In the speech in which he issued the apology, he stated that he had spent more time listening to people living in poverty and realized that “Most people don’t want to be dependent.” His observation matches the experience I have had interacting with clients at the food pantry. Unfortunately, after having read several articles about the House GOP antipoverty plan, I realize that Ryan’s apology signals no shift in House Republicans’ thinking about the causes of poverty or the proposed solutions for moving people out of poverty. The plan is filled with proposals that will often do more harm than good, neglects to address actions that need to be taken and fails to reconcile its proposals with the House GOP budget plan, which proposed drastic cuts in programs for Americans with low and moderate incomes.
In spite of the fact that House Republicans vowed to fight poverty, this antipoverty plan contains proposals that will often negatively impact those it purports to assist. For instance, proposals in the plan seek to weaken nutrition standards for school lunches as well as reduce access to free meals for students in need, while raising administrative costs and burdens. Also proposed in the antipoverty plan is a shift to funding school lunches as a block grant. I find this particularly alarming, because block grants in the past often result in unequal access to programs nationwide and a decrease in benefits overall. Targeting the school lunch program for cuts is particularly troubling, as this program benefits children, a group most Americans agree should receive assistance. Additionally, the school lunch program has successfully lessened childhood hunger and ensured children are nutritionally prepared to meet their school day.
The second concern I have with Ryan’s antipoverty plan is that while it seeks to reward being employed, the plan fails to address the minimum wage at all. Many Americans, including numerous people in Ryan’s own district, have lost good paying unionized manufacturing jobs as factories have closed and manufacturing jobs have moved oversees. When those who have found themselves unemployed find employment, what they find are often positions in the service industry which pays minimum wage. As I have said before, a full time minimum wage job barely keeps a single person without dependents above the poverty line, but someone with a family and that same job would certainly be in poverty with no chance to pull his or her family out of poverty on such a meager salary. For an antipoverty plan that champions working as the path out of poverty, to neglect to advocate for a living wage, or even a modest raise to the minimum wage is inexcusable.
“And the way I argue about this [reforming poverty programs] is: This is not a budget-cutting exercise. Take the same amount of money. It should be a life-saving exercise. And that means the government can provide resources. It can be the supply lines.”
Paul Ryan at the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity, January 9, 2016
Finally, the fact that the House GOP’s antipoverty plan fails to take into account this year’s House GOP budget plan, approved in March by the House Budget Committee’s GOP majority, is of particular concern. This budget plan proposes $3.7 trillion in cuts to programs which benefit low and moderate income Americans. By 2026 programs to assist low income Americans would lose 42% of their currently inadequate funding. Cuts to these programs alone account for 62% of the plan’s budget cuts. Among the programs targeted for cuts is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which would see cuts that would cause millions of families to cease to receive any SNAP assistance and/or further reduce benefit amounts for tens of millions of families. Additionally, low income Americans will see cuts in assistance for healthcare and higher education to name a few other areas targeted for budget cuts. The cuts proposed for low income programs in the House GOP’s budget plan are unprecedented in magnitude and yet the House GOP budget manages to preserve all current tax expenditures which tend to favor the wealthy. Luckily, this budget was not approved this year, but what is evident from this budget plan is that inconsistencies exist between the House Republicans’ vow to fight poverty and the actual actions they proposed with regard to those living in poverty.
Consequently, I have come to the conclusion that contrary to what Speaker Ryan says about having evolved on his views of poverty and vowing to fight poverty, the antipoverty and budgetary proposals put forth by the House GOP paint a different picture. Unfortunately the picture these documents paint is of a system stacked against those less fortunate. Speaker Ryan and the House GOP’s antipoverty plan proposes little to assist those in poverty out of poverty or address the root causes of poverty. At the same time these same legislators propose a budgetary plan that slashes to the bone some of the very programs that help those in poverty make ends meet. With proposals like these, it is easy to understand why almost three-fourths of Americans think the economy is rigged.