Sunday, May 29 , 2016, 6:47 am | Fog/Mist 56º

Joe Conason: Scholars Call Out Lies in Rep. Paul Ryan’s Poverty Report

By Joe Conason |

For the sake of America’s poor, a sincere conservative effort to improve the programs that serve them is very desirable — especially so long as Republicans control the House of Representatives, where they habitually yearn to cut or defund those same programs. For months, Washington has eagerly awaited the latest version of “compassionate conservatism,” promised by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and his publicists.

Appearing at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, Ryan denounced government programs that serve the poor, including food stamps and free school lunch: “What the left is offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. The American people want more than that.”

But what the House Budget Committee chairman and 2012 vice-presidential candidate delivered a few days earlier showed that he is offering not more, but much less. “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later,” produced by Ryan’s budget committee staff is merely more of the same old right-wing propaganda against the safety net, and worse.

Promoted as a scathingly rigorous analysis of the impact of poverty programs since the 1960s, its 200-plus pages cite dozens of academic researchers. Yet it more resembles an ideological tract than the social science meta-study it purports to be. Having determined in advance that nearly all of the nation's anti-poverty spending is wasteful, counterproductive and damaging to the work ethic of poor people, Ryan and his staff perform an audacious statistical stunt: They prove those programs have failed by pretending those programs don’t exist.

Poverty in America is officially determined by household income, and any official measurement of the number or percentage of poor Americans — those living “below the poverty line” — is determined by their incomes alone. But to measure the effectiveness of government programs designed to reduce the impact of low incomes, it would seem logically necessary to add in those extra sources of cash, goods and services.

But the Ryan report rejects such plain logic, relying instead on the official poverty numbers without assessing the impact of those programs — and then insists that because the number of families with low incomes remains around 15 percent, those programs have failed.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains in a pithy review:

“The report features the ‘official’ poverty measure even though analysts across the political spectrum — and all three witnesses at a recent hearing that Ryan held, including the two Republicans he invited — have warned that the official poverty measure is deeply flawed for tracking changes in poverty over recent decades and for evaluating the impact of the safety net today. The official measure ignores a very large share of the safety net — including SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), tax-based benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, and low-income housing assistance, among other programs.

“Using a more comprehensive measure of poverty that analysts broadly favor, known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), Columbia University researchers recently found that poverty had fallen markedly, from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012. Ryan buries this fact, failing to note the deep reductions in poverty under the SPM since the ’60s until page 201 of his report.

“Moreover, the SPM shows that in 2012, the safety net cut poverty nearly in half — shrinking the poverty rate from 29 percent to 16 percent. Yet in its 200-plus pages, the Ryan report fails to mention these findings.”

In other words, Ryan cooks the books (again!), this time to denigrate programs that the Republicans want to cut drastically, notably the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid.

If such manipulations aren’t troubling enough, it now appears that some of Ryan’s copious academic citations are also misleading and perhaps fraudulent, with the same distorting effect. According to The Fiscal Times, the group of Columbia researchers whose work is cited in the report complain that Ryan omits critical data from their study, which examines progress against poverty between 1967 and 2012. For reasons best known to Ryan, his team simply left out the data from 1967 to 1969 — and artfully diminished the very substantial improvement gauged during those years.

Not so impressive for a politician claiming wonk status.

Said a surprised Jane Waldfogel, one of the Columbia professors who co-authored the study cited so misleadingly by Ryan: “In my experience, usually you use all of the available data. There’s no justification given. It’s unfortunate because it really understates the progress we’ve made in reducing poverty.”

Like any faithful House Republican, Ryan and his staff also ignore the beneficial impact of health-care reform. Based on completely outdated figures, they insist that poor families are discouraged from working (as if there are plenty of jobs) because they fear making too much money to qualify for Medicaid. But as CBPP also points out, that problem has been erased by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which sharply increases the amount that a household can earn before losing Medicaid to 136 percent of the poverty line. Above that line, a working family can qualify for Obamacare subsidies and retain its insurance. But the Ryan report conceals that salient fact, too.

The report does offer a few brighter moments — including its advocacy for an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is proposed by President Barack Obama in his budget today as well. Time will tell whether House Republicans join the White House to improve that traditionally bipartisan program, a favorite of both Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. A safer bet is that they will surrender instead to the tea party caucus, which abhors any cooperation with Obama.

Either way, there is nothing in Ryan’s latest effusion to dispel the impression of intellectual impoverishment that is the hallmark of compassionate conservatism — always an embarrassing oxymoron, and now a synonym for scholarly deception as well.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Reader Comments

Noozhawk's intent is not to limit the discussion of our stories but to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and must be free of profanity and abusive language and attacks.

By posting on Noozhawk, you:

» Agree to be respectful. Noozhawk encourages intelligent and impassioned discussion and debate, but now has a zero-tolerance policy for those who cannot express their opinions in a civil manner.

» Agree not to use Noozhawk’s forums for personal attacks. This includes any sort of personal attack — including, but not limited to, the people in our stories, the journalists who create these stories, fellow readers who comment on our stories, or anyone else in our community.

» Agree not to post on Noozhawk any comments that can be construed as libelous, defamatory, obscene, profane, vulgar, harmful, threatening, tortious, harassing, abusive, hateful, sexist, racially or ethnically objectionable, or that are invasive of another’s privacy.

» Agree not to post in a manner than emulates, purports or pretends to be someone else. Under no circumstances are readers posting to Noozhawk to knowingly use the name or identity of another person, whether that is another reader on this site, a public figure, celebrity, elected official or fictitious character. This also means readers will not knowingly give out any personal information of other members of these forums.

» Agree not to solicit others. You agree you will not use Noozhawk’s forums to solicit and/or advertise for personal blogs and websites, without Noozhawk’s express written approval.

Noozhawk’s management and editors, in our sole discretion, retain the right to remove individual posts or to revoke the access privileges of anyone who we believe has violated any of these terms or any other term of this agreement; however, we are under no obligation to do so.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.


Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.