A Republican task force from the House of Representatives, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, last week issued a report on policy approaches to poverty in the U.S. In some ways it was disappointing, since it provided little in the way of new ideas or specific proposals. The messaging around the report made it clear that it was an articulation of what Republicans agree on, to build support leading up to the November election, rather than a path toward consensus with the Democratic Party.
Others have critiqued the document comprehensively, or published entirely different frameworks for better federal policy regarding poverty. I’m offering my observations on aspects of the plan that Democrats and people who work every day on poverty would probably agree on – with an eye toward further discussion once the election is over. These areas of agreement are what we’ll need to rely on if we want better policy, assuming neither party comes out of the election with enough dominance to make policy without bipartisan agreement (i.e. winning the Presidency, majority in the House, and 60-vote majority in the Senate).
Here’s what nearly everyone can agree on in the Ryan poverty plan:
- Too many Americans are poor. The report makes a mistake in uncritically using the traditional poverty measure that leaves out in-kind income from federal programs. More generally, there would be a lot of disagreement about whose fault poverty is. But this report expresses agreement that poverty is a problem that needs to be solved.
- Existing federal programs don’t help enough. While there is lots of disagreement about the overall impact of federal programs, there seems to be agreement that we need to do better. One thing the report doesn’t mention – housing is the basic human need where federal efforts come up the shortest, because only a quarter of those who need help, get help.
- If more people were working and earning more money it would be better. The report talks a lot about incentives to work, and unfortunately not enough about barriers to work. But more employment and more earned income seem like areas of agreement.
- Federal programs need to be accountable for solving problems. Almost anyone would agree that if we’re spending money to reduce poverty, then we should reduce poverty. There is disagreement on what this means, how to do it, and especially whether giving more authority to states or localities would help, but everyone wants better outcomes.
- Better coordination between different programs would help. Low-income people and their allies have always known that an antipoverty system that’s easier to use would be more effective.
Some of these, it turns out, are lessons confirmed by our country’s recent progress on homelessness. Accountability for outcomes, coordination at the local and federal level, more employment, and more coverage are all watchwords of the HEARTH Act and of communities’ work to end homelessness. We’re hoping that after the election, there can be some serious work on how to use these to start making a better impact on poverty.