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Policy

Paul Ryan signals change in tone on poverty. Skeptics raise collective eyebrow.

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Paul Ryan is arguably the Republican Party's most amplified voice on poverty. He talks about it often in his role as chairman of the House Budget Committee and spoke famously on Vice Presidential campaign trail.

Ryan has just started pushing a new anti-poverty plan that includes expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and talks a lot about "opportunity." The plan is not getting much attention with most of the national media preoccupied with global events.

But this poverty plan is important because it signals a change in the way the Republican party frames and talks about poverty. It could also mean more political compromise where anti-poverty efforts are concerned.

So, what are the most important things to pay attention to in Ryan's new proposal? 

  • Block Grants: This is really the heart of the proposal. Ryan's proposed budgets have consistently argued that federal anti-poverty programs need to be cut dramatically. Any remaining funds should go to the states to administer themselves. Ezra Klien has a good summary on why block grants are considered suspect by many anti-poverty advocates. The short answer is that historically, block grants have meant less money for anti-poverty efforts. 
  • Expansion of the EITC: The EITC is a hugely popular, and effective anti-poverty initiative. The Ryan proposal says the credit should be doubled for childless low-income workers. This may be popular with many low-wage workers, but it ignores the fact that people with children have higher expenses and are shouldering more future tax burdens, as economist Robert Stein points out
  • Let me hold your hand: Ryan says that all of the ideas in his proposal reinforce the same principal "Give more flexibility in exchange for more accountability." That is as meaningful for anti-poverty programs and states as it is for people living in poverty. One of Ryan's ideas is to require each person receiving benefits to develop an "opportunity plan" with a caseworker that they have to stick to in order to get said benefits. 
  • Where's the money? Ultimately a lot of things in the plan, like those opportunity plans, don't actually seem to be compatible with the budgets Ryan has put forward the last few years. Those budgets cut anti-poverty programs in such a way that there would be no money for an expanded EITC, for example. Democrats have asked if this is a change of heart or simply insincere? 

The takeaway is that for those trying to keep up with what's going on with federal and state anti-poverty efforts, "talk is cheap." To see if the old battle lines drawn around anti-poverty programs are moving, or at least blurring, we'll have to pay more careful attention to state and federal budgets.

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